Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Andrew Wyeth Biography

This summer I read the biography of an old myth of mine, Andrew Wyeth.
I "discovered" Wyeth in 1989, when I found this book on his family.
Remember at the time there was no internet and few bookshops in Italy had "imported books", real treasures for me !
Wyeth's paintings were a revelation, I had just finished my illustration diploma at the time and I had understood that I wasn't going very far as an illustrator.
I shared a studio with a sculptor and who really initiate me to a more meaningful art and drawing, so you can imagine how I fell for this american painter who was "illustrative"- I refuse to use this word in a derogatory sense- and a soulful fine artist as well.

I didn't know much about the story behind his paintings, I don't think I even bothered to read the text at the time, but I was incredibly captivated by the calm, the uncompromising glance of the painter, the supreme skill.

If you like Wyeth's work this book by Richard Meryman is a very good read. In its 400 pages it looks at Wyeth's life in detail, examines his family, the characters he painted and sheds a light on the narrative of the works.
Karl, 1948

The death, after a train crossing accident, of Wyeth's father, N. C. in 1945 was the turning point of Andrew's life. His father had been a towering figure in his life, he taught him how to paint, assessed his work, kept him living close by. He was terrified by his father and loved him very much as well. He always regretted not having painted a portrait of N.C.. This tempera of Karl Kuerner, his neighbour at Chadds Ford, was a response to his feelings of loss for his father. Kuerner as well as being an understanding and exciting presence, had a very brutal side that Andrew found shocking: three years after N. C.'s death Karl embodies his overbearing figure.
The hook was in the Kuerner farm's attic, and it was included in the final painting ( after some 25 preparatory drawings) as it embodies the undercurrent of violence of this ex german soldier.

Death is a recurrent theme in Wyeth's works. In Adrift he depicts his childhood friend Walt Anderson. Dying of cancer, the little boat that had seen them roaming the shores of Maine becomes a viking coffin.

Geographically, Wyeths world gravitates between the historic countryside of Pennsylvania, where his father's big house was, and his summer home in Maine. The paintings are inhabited by local neighbours, friends, models.
The most famous one is a german woman who was staying at the Kuerner's farm. Wyeth, whose wife had taken the role of his father as an important viewer of his works as well as managing his relations with galleries, started to paint Helga in 1972 and she sat for him secretly for a period of fifteen years.
Wyeth needed the excitement, the secrecy, the freedom from his wife's judgement.

The Helga pictures are an incredible body of work that surfaced only after Helga stopped sitting. The relationship between artist and model is analysed very finely by Meryman, and again the deep links of these works with the themes in all of Wyeth's works are exposed.

In Night Shadow for example the echo of N. C.'s death still resonates, and in many of the paintings she is asleep, another recurrent theme.

In the series there is a watercolour that I consider one of the most beautiful erotic paintings ever done.

Wyeth's life was completely dedicated to painting, and the strength of his work comes from this identification. If some of the most well known works have been a little diluted from being reproduced all over, this book restores their deep meaning. Reading of an artist who was so devoted to his work is a sobering experience, a reminder of the seriousness involved in the practice of art.


Gary said...

If you do feel like reading some text this book is quite important I think: as it is Wyeth speaking for himself. There is also a YouTube video here:

Ilaria said...

Thank you Gary, I will get that.

Ilaria said...

Gary, just writing to let you know that I got the book a couple of days ago. I haven't really gone beyond the first few pages yet though because every time I sit down with it after a few lines I just have to go up to the studio and work some more. His words are like whiplashes.

Gary said...

Dear Ilaria, I am glad to return the favour as you have kindly introduced me to Patrick Heron's writing and Catherine Kehoe's blog, and both are a rich source of inspiration to me. Kind regards, Gary

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Hi Ilaria - you might find my website about Andrew Wyeth interesting

I'm going to be adding this review of him and the biography to the site.