Sunday, June 14, 2009

Andrew's World

I am very pleased with all the wonderful comments about “Zwei Smarte Boys." My old friend Bob Goebel wrote me a very nice note, and Professor Dufner’s daughter, our longtime friend from those halcyon Tucson days, is coming to visit us this week here in Maryland.

For this week’s essay I return to Cushing, Maine. The photographs I took during a recent visit in late May. I make reference to two paintings and a drawing by Andrew Wyeth. For copyright reasons I am not able to reproduce them here, but I am providing hyperlinks so that you can view them online at the appropriate time.




I apologize for the inconvenience, but I want the reader to be able to understand what I am writing about.

To date I have dedicated two essays to the recent death of Andrew Wyeth who passed away in January at the age of 91. One describes a visit to Wyeth’s native Brandywine River Valley, in southeastern Pennsylvania, shortly after his death (“Remembering Andrew Wyeth,” on February 2), while the other recounts my road trip through Wyeth country along the midcoast of Maine the day after his death (“Beyond Snow Hill: A Few More Parting Words,” on February 9). I recently returned from yet another visit to Cushing, Maine and the Olson House, that old graying clapboard farmhouse above the St. George River, at Hathorne Point. Here Wyeth painted off and on for many years, and from an upstairs window he sketched the crippled Christina Olson in 1948 as she crawled home across the neighboring field after visiting her parents’ grave at the small family cemetery situated on a bluff above Maple Juice Cove. It is a moment in time captured in the now iconic Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World.”[*] “I just couldn’t stay away from there,” Wyeth would later say. “I’d always seem to gravitate back to the house . . . It was Maine.”

Although I had visited the cemetery before, I was not able to reach it on that cold January afternoon the day after Andrew Wyeth died. It and the surrounding fields were encased in deep snow and ice, and dusk was quickly descending. On this most recent visit, however, I found the Olson House and Hathorne Point much transformed since my wintertime visit. Spring along the Maine coast was approaching its zenith; the lilacs and apple trees were in full bloom and the fields and pastures were covered in yellow dandelions and white carpets of Queen Anne’s Lace. Once again Sally Ann and I wandered though the field where Christina made her tortured journey some sixty years earlier, down to the small, shaded cemetery where she lies buried next to her parents and her brother Alvardo. She and Al had lived their entire lives in that old house up the hill. The cemetery contains the graves of other members of the Olson family, as well as those of farming and sea-going families who have called this point of land home for generations, including the Hathorne family whose earliest members came to this area from Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-18th century. It was Hathornes who originally built and resided in the farmhouse, what Betsy Wyeth called that “weathered ship stranded on a hilltop.”

There was another important change since our last visit to the cemetery. Entering, one encounters a new gravestone - a simple, unpolished stone with the inscription “Andrew Wyeth 1917-2009.” I had always assumed that he would be buried in the family plot in Chadds Ford, near the farm where he lived during the winter and spring, or out on Benner Island, where the St. George River flows into the sea and where he has lived and painted for years. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in this small and mostly forgotten cemetery. He could not be buried next to Christina as he would have liked; the Olson plot is situated in the rear of the cemetery and there is no space available there. So his final resting place is centrally located at the entrance and serves as a counterpoint to Christina’s. I cannot think of a more fitting place for him to be buried. It was here on Hathorne Point and in the surrounding Cushing countryside that he seemed most at home. These were the landscapes and people of so many of his paintings.

Edgar Allen Beem, an authority on Maine art who knew Wyeth for two decades, views “Christina’s World” as “essentially a surrogate self-portrait, a picture of Wyeth’s own defiant independence embodied in a deliberate outsider . . . a visual meditation on mortality.” He also views the large grassy fields in this and other works as Wyeth’s representation of N.C. Wyeth, his “larger than life father.” But Wyeth’s paintings of the Brandywine Valley and the coast of Maine also elicited a great deal of criticism from his contemporaries. Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, has long referred to Wyeth and his art as “hermetic” and with limited appeal.

You cannot look at Wyeth’s art without looking into the man himself. They were his life . . . and they also foretold his eventual death. I have previously written of the missing reveler in “Snow Hill,” and I am reminded of a Wyeth interview with Thomas Hoving back in 2000, when he referred to a large tempera painting, “Long Limb,” [***] which he had completed the previous year. It is minimalist in its representations, like so many of Wyeth’s paintings. There are two rolling hills covered with dried grasses, much like the grass we see in “Christina’s World,” and a single patch of melting snow. In the foreground there is a single long limb with a few dried leaves still clinging to it. “The patch of snow is my grave,” Wyeth told Hoving. “The withered leaves on the tree are my friends who passed away.” Wyeth was telling us he wanted to be surrounded by his friends when the final call came. He is certainly among friends on Hathorne Point.

When Christina Olson died in January 1968, Wyeth traveled from Pennsylvania to Maine to attend her funeral and burial. The day before the service he went alone out to the Olson House and wandered through the now empty house. It was snowing that day, and the silence was broken only by the workmen’s jackhammers as they broke up the frozen soil to open Christina’s grave. Before he left, Wyeth wandered down through the snow and ice to the cemetery (something I was reluctant to do when I visited the house the day after he died) and made a quick pencil sketch - “The Day Before Christina’s Funeral” - of the foreboding grave.** It is a rather stark drawing, but stunning in its simplicity as it captures the isolation and loneliness of the place. Boards had been placed over the open hole, a pile of dirt nearby with a few tombstones visible behind it. In the background the Olson house and barn appear much as they do in “Christina’s World,” the field she crawled across blanketed in snow. I am struck by one of the tombstones, the most prominent in the drawing as it is darker than the others and stands in a direct line between the open grave and the house on the hill. Another foretelling of Wyeth’s own death? It is the same shape and color as his own tombstone.

Every time I visit Hathorne Point I think of it in terms of Christina’s world. Andrew Wyeth only interpreted it and presented it to his audience. All this has changed now. Andrew Wyeth, long a visitor to these fields and waters, has finally come home. It is now Andrew’s World. Perhaps it always was.

NEXT WEEK: Une Maudite Poutine

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