A Review of Andrew Wyeth’s Autobiography

 

Jacklight

Jacklight

Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography is not your typical autobiography.  Instead it is more like a selected tour of a number of Andrew Wyeth‘s works, selected perhaps because they help to articulated his journey.  It is a collections of quality images, and beside each image, or beneath it, is a sentence, or a paragraph, or perhaps even an entire page of writing explaining anything from the narrative surrounding the painting of the work, or the intent, inspiration or technique.  Wyeth employs a conversational tone throughout, and speaks as though he were entertaining a friend who knew him well.  The book, though, is less autobiography and more biography of the geographic locations and the people depicted in his paintings, told through Wyeth’s perspective.  His work and his words are almost journalistic in nature, with the kind impartiality present in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  It is interesting and insightful, and gives the reader an illuminating perspective on many of the works, but at the same time, Wyeth speaks as if he is talking to a fellow townsperson who knows all the people and their backstory and their history with Wyeth, so that the reader can sometimes feel as though they are left out of the conversation.

 

 

thesexton

The Sexton

One of the more interesting aspect of the book is Wyeth’s commentary on the titles of his works, some of which were changed.  While painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were content to simply number many of their paintings, thereby cataloguing them, Wyeth recognized the power words had to bring meaning to a painting.  In The Sexton, for instance, Wyeth painted the image of a man digging a grave, and named the painting after him in a manner.  Rather than using the man’ name, he uses his job title: sexton.  A sexton (and I did have to look this up), is a person in charge of maintenance of a church, but the word is also used to describe an artillery man.  It is unclear if the term is meant to be read exclusively as the job title, or both as the job title and in the militaristic sense.  The title not only subordinates the man’s personal identity to his job, but the two meanings of sexton create an interesting juxtaposition that links religion with war.  The original title, though, was entirely different: She Doesn’t Winter Well.  Rather than making the person in the painting the subject, it makes the person being buried the subject, and uses a dark humour to do so and thereby trivializing somebody’s death and making light of the situation.  Such a title would have likely gotten a lot of attention and would appealed to those with a macabre sense of humour, but the title Wyeth ultimately went with is much better and enhances the work.

 

The Trophy

The Trophy

The words in a title and the images in a painting can both serve as signifiers, and in some instances Wyeth’s titles can reframe the nature of the signification within a painting, highlighting how humans pull things out of nature and thrust constructs onto them that are outside of their natural element.  The Trophy, for example, is a painting of rack of a moose that had been killed on a hunting trip.  A moose’s antlers are linked to mating, and for the moose they are a means of securing a mate.  In nature they have a very specific function, but in the painting, the moose has been killed and his antlers are hung as a trophy.  A trophy is a signifier that celebrates a triumph, so what defined the masculinity of a moose, later represents his emasculation and then is employed to signify the masculine identity of the human who killed the moose.  The title specifically situates the rack as a trophy, drawing attention to the hunt and the antagonistic relationship that exists between humanity and the natural realm.  For me, when first seeing the image, I was reminded of the cruel nature of hunting and how heartless one must be to display a ‘conquest’.  But for the people who hang them, this is not what is signified, rather, it is a triumph that is signified.  The title then serves to draw attention to this jar the reader, drawing attention to how human signification is counterintuitive to nature in many instances.

Blue Box

Blue Box

The text within each title speaks to the power words have to contextualize an image.  A similar issue arises in literature as the images and formatting of a book are considered paratext, or literally that which is beside the text.   The paratext can alter the way in which a work is viewed.  If, for example, Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is given a ‘tasteful’ cover, with the ‘Penguin Modern Classics’ label on it, the reader may approach it differently than they would if it were published by Harlequin with an lusty illustrative cover.  For this work, however, it is the text that alters the meaning of the images, not the other way around.  The paintings in this collection have stood on their own in galleries for decades, and now are thrown into a book with a collection of words.  For instance, the painting Blue Box, though aesthetically pleasing, may be hard to find meaning in.  Wyeth, though, notes that the window is the same window the young girl in his famous painting Christina’s World is looking up to.  These words link the two paintings and the meaning present in Christina’s World is enhanced by this work, while simultaneously enhancing Blue Box.  Without the paraimago, or that which is beside the image, the two paintings cannot be linked and inform the viewing of each other.

 

Raccoon

Raccoon

This use of paraimago happens throughout the book and often highlights the lack of humanity offered to the animal world.  In Raccoon we see a picture of dog standing up on its front legs.  Wyeth informs the reader that the dog’s owner was a cruel man and kept the dog locked up most times.  The dog’s life was filled more with darkness than light and was eventually shot by the man who trained the dog as a hunting dog.  Jacklight works in a similar fashion.  It displays a deer that frequented Wyeth’s property that was almost domesticated.  The title refers to an illegal practice hunters engaged in where they would kill the deer with their headlights.  Days after painting the image, Wyeth saw deer gutted and strung up.  There is a sadness that Wyeth’s words bring to Raccoon and Jacklight.  In the images we see these stoic and peaceful animals, but we cannot see that cruelty that will be forced upon them, as we can in other paintings such as Grey Squirrel and Fast Lane.  The paraimago, in such instances, serve to enhance the strength of the images.

 

The Virgin, a portrait of Siri Erickson.

The Virgin, a portrait of Siri Erickson.

Wyeth’s subject matter also challenges preconceived notions of what is sexually appropriate. After the death of Christina Olson, Wyeth found a new model: Siri Erickson. Siri was 15 at the time, and it wasn’t long before he painted his first of several nude portraits of her. He was uncomfortable with her being nude and insisted she ask her father first, but she revealed to Wyeth that her father had already mentioned it to her, noting that she would likely have to take her towel off if he was painting her the sauna. Wyeth painted several portraits of her father, George, as well, one of which he wanted to do with Siri standing topless behind him as that was, according to Wyeth, the way she commonly walked around the house. This suggests a scenario in which the nude female body is not exclusively associate with sex and one in which being perpetually clothed is unnatural. It is almost an Edenic approach to the human body.  Ironically, though, Wyeth titled the piece ‘The Virgin’, bringing notions of sex into the fray.

 

Christina's World

Christina’s World

Notably absent from the collection is Wyeth’s most famous work: Christina’s World.  The painting is referenced several times throughout the work, and there are several paintings either of, or closely linked with the girl represented in Wyeth’s most recognized painting.  The absence of this painting is most peculiar.  It is akin to Radiohead putting out a greatest-hits album and not including the song ‘Creep’, or going to a Led Zeppelin concert and not hearing ‘Stairway To Heaven’.  Yes, the work is widely recognized and does not need to be anthologized in order to maintain its high profile.  Christina’s World has secured in place in the cannon, and like radio friendly songs by popular musician that are overplayed and overshadow their oeuvre as a result, it likely that Christina’s World may have served to eclipse the other works in the collection if it had been included, casting a shadow over them.  When I went to the Modern Museum of Art, this is what happened to their collection: van Gogh’s Starry Night had no less than twenty-five people around it, and many of the other paintings in the collection were quite literally ignored by many patrons.  Ironically, Christina’s World is one of the paintings that was eclipsed by Starry Night.  When I went to see it in person, there was nobody else around the painting.  I got it all to myself for a few minutes.  Perhaps this is what Wyeth hoped to avoid by excluding it.  Perhaps he wanted to let his other paintings shine and not risk the viewer lingering on the page featuring Christina’s World.  He didn’t want to play the part of a band like Def Leppard and risk having an entire audience leave shortly after opening up with ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’.  But given the impact the painting has had on his career and the place it holds in the canon, AND the fact that it IS mentioned several times throughout, there seems to be no good reason why it shouldn’t have been included.

 

Overflow, a portrait of Helga Kuener.

Overflow, a portrait of Helga Kuener.

Overall, the book was engaging and a pleasure to look at.  Though the accompanying text is seldom more than a paragraph for each painting, it provides some interesting narratives that give the images added depth in most instances, though in instances like The Ides Of March, where Wyeth simply goes on about his dog, the text suggests that some of Wyeth’s work borders on the kitsch.  The work is weighed down slightly by Wyeth’s use to terms associated with perceived race.  He misuses the tern ‘Indian’ to describe a person who was not from India at all, and at two points in the book references a ‘negro girl’ that was taken into a barn.  His use of the word ‘negro’ seems antiquated, and the fact that he does not contextualize why the girl was taken into the barn or what happened to her leaves the reader dangling while to understand the reference.  Such archaic use of these obsolete and flawed terms might fairly be expected of a man who was fast approaching 70 at the time of publication and grew up during the Roaring Twenties and the Depression when such language was common, but at the same time, the use of these words in such a recent publication do weigh down the work.  I certainly wouldn’t suggest removing them, because they offer an authenticity to his voice, but they do carry some cultural, social and historical baggage with them.  The book is a must have for any fan of Wyeth’s work.  Getting to read what an artist says about his or her own work is a unique experience, and one that makes this book unique.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this! I “googled” The Sexton to find it online and came up with your site.

    The man in the painting is my grandmother’s brother. They were brought up in Maine and he was the model. I’m not sure if he was an actual Sexton, but it’s possible.

    I’ve always wanted to buy a print of the painting, but it’s not one that was ever reproduced, other than in a book.

    Cheers!

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