Andrew Wyeth died a decade ago, but his status as a beloved American painter was assured long before. He painted his best-known work Christina’s World in 1948, a time in American painting when images of immediately recognizable fields, farmhouses, and middle-aged women were not, to put it mildly, in vogue. But Christina’s World has survived right alongside, say, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings from the very same year. How it has done so — and what way of seeing enabled Wyeth to paint it with such confidence in the first place — constitutes the subject of this new video essay by Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter (whose investigations into Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Hopper and others we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture).
“Being realistic and dramatic, Christina’s World more easily fits the shape of our memories, our dreams, our fears and cravings,” says Pucshak. “In other words, it resembles a story.” Not only does the painting’s combination of the familiar and the unknown fire up our imagination, getting us to generate narratives to apply to it, it also guides our vision, taking us on a journey from woman to house to barn and back again. But for all its appearance of pastoral reverie, it also has a certain darkness about it, hinted at by the colors, which are muted, reflecting the particular austerity of New England landscapes, a common image in early American art and thought,” as well as the body of Christina herself, lifted from the earth only by “thin and contorted arms.”
The real Christina, as is now common art-historical knowledge, suffered from a disease of the nervous system that robbed her of her ability to walk; her preference of crawling rather than using a wheelchair meant that she navigated her world in a much different manner than most of us do. But even as Wyeth shows us one variety of little-acknowledged human limitation, he also shows us another variety of little-acknowledged human ability. Puschak suggests that Wyeth was “looking for a secret in nature,” and in the search became the transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball,” which contains nothing yet sees everything.
“He sees in the nature around him, even in the barren landscapes of new England, something profoundly real,” says Puschak. “As an artist, he helps us to see it too.” He also reminds us 21st century urbanites, who dwell as much in the digital realm as the physical one, of the “piece of us in the land, in the trees, in the sky, and a sense of wholeness waits for us when we can remember not to forget it.” The idea may sound as unfashionable as realism looked in Wyeth’s day, but to the artist’s own mind, he was never a realist at all. “My people, my objects breathe in a different way,” he once said. “There’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract. My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing — if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.