Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth and Heart

Here in Chester County, Pennsylvania we are very proud of our recently deceased favorite son, Andrew Wyeth. As a matter of fact, in one of those stranger than fiction moments, my daughter and I happened to be visiting the Brandywine River Museum this January 15, the day Andrew Wyeth died.

Just 15 minutes from our home, The Brandywine River Museum along with the NC Wyeth Studio and the Kuerner Farm, were always great places to take out-of-town-guests and visiting relatives (along with the Brandywine Battlefield on the way), but touring it this time with my daughter who graduated from Skidmore College with a BA in Art History and who was visiting from Raleigh where she is doing an internship at the North Carolina Museum of Art, I saw the Andrew Wyeth paintings, which were the focus of her visit, in a new light.

When I first moved to Chester County, over thirty years ago, every stone farmhouse and historic tavern had at least one de rigueur Wyeth print adorning the walls. Ours is "Outpost." Other members of the" Chester County School" gained popularity as well, and most are far more ubiquitious than Andrew Wyeth, regularly showing up at galleries and frame shops to sign their newest prints. However, as the county grew increasingly populated and more "cosmopolitan" many galleries and art shows began advertising their collections as "not just barns in the snow."

In fact there was and is quite a bit of controversy in the art world regarding Andrew Wyeth. Trained by his father, a well-known illustrator of books when books were still works of art, and competing in his prime with painters like Jackson Pollack, his work was considered "kitschy" or "facile realism" by many and even on a par with Norman Rockwell.

I'm no art critic, but I do know the countryside Andrew Wyeth painted. It is not nearly so stark and muted, not quite so brown and washed of color as Wyeth depicts it, making his realism anything but facile. What I took away from the Wyeth paintings we viewed, despite decades of living among them as a neighbor and thus taking them for granted, was the "heart" of the Pennsylvania countryside and those who peopled it before malls and Macmansions sprouted in our rolling corn fields.

The lack of appreciation for Wyeth within the greater artistic community is more understandable than the backlash of some in our local arts community against the Chester County realists. However, I attribute that more to overkill on the part of Wyeth's imitators. They're the ones responsible for those "barns in the snow" painted with a slight flourish, like one splash of color. These painters worked to create a signature style like some writers work to create a signature voice, leading Andrew's sister, Ann, to note, "...(most of their paintings) are dead. They miss the point someplace––the mood of the picture...They paint things very closely, but that's not the point." The term I would use is, they lack heart.

Which brings me to why I am posting about Andrew Wyeth on a writing blog. It is my opinion that in art, whether it is painting, writing, or even acting, no amount of skill or talent can cover for a lack of heart. I know there are many out there who would disagree, and I'm not implying that the opposite does not apply as well. Heart without talent and skill to express it is just as useless, but personally, I'm willing to accept slightly less skill in a writer whose work has heart.

Those New Yorker stories I ranted about in another post are indicative of skill over heart and fall right in line with the imitators who work in a particular style but don't understand why except that it's what certain magazines like to publish. These writers imitate the early observers of the suburban middle class like John Cheever and early Updike but without providing the same deep insights. They have the skill. They have the talent. What they lack is the heart.

While I'll admit to not quite grasping Jackson Pollack, I will allow that his work had heart. However, if Andrew Wyeth painted in the same style, as critics thought he should, the heart would be missing.

I'll take a work with heart every time.


Kathryn Magendie said...

One of Wyeth's paintings was the first inspiration for the beginning of the first draft for tender graces (virginia kate) - but, that all changed as VK took on another life, voice, whatever - I still have that opening image -the woman in the bed: Chamber Nautilus.

Master Bedroom rests in our house, too ...of course, the prints not the originals -of course! And a book of his work...

But CN - it remains an enigma - I'll one day do something with that beginning of that story - that woman there....staring out of the window, the things surrounding her...

Nannette Croce said...

I didn't know about that inspiration. I do know that your writing has heart as well as skill and talent.


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