Saturday, 27 September 2008

Two Paintings

Remedios Varo (see below) has sent me off on a google-chase. Above are two 20th century American paintings which capture the unsettled, insecure state of my feelings at the moment: therefore, looking at them is a comfort. The top one is by Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917), and the bottom one by Dorothea Tanning (b. 1910). Oddly, I've loved both since I was a small child. 'Loved' in fact is the wrong word for how I feel about the Wyeth painting, 'Christina's World'. 'Horribly fascinated' comes closer. The painting is a paradox: it shows nothing but space - vast, featureless prairie - and yet the sense of threat and doom is palpable, claustrophobic. Because there is everywhere to run, there is nowhere to run. Is the house the source of the threat or of hoped-for sanctuary? Has the girl stumbled in a headlong chase? Though painted in 1948, there is something of the atmosphere of a high-class 70's slasher movie here: the young girl, with pitifully thin arms, defenceless against an unseen threat, cowers in an eerie rural location, a landscape from which every feature seems to have been bleached. (It's exactly like the house of Jack's parents at the end of Brokeback Mountain.) Even the clapboard house evokes a horror film. A good horror film depends on making the utterly ordinary terrifying. In American terms, the midwestern clapboard farmhouse has been a common topos for precisely this reason. Does Wyeth anticipate this , or are we unable to read his painting except through the lens of this later cultural development? Something about 'Christina's World' brings the heart right into the throat.

The second painting is 'The Birthday', by Dorothea Tannning, whom I mentioned below. Here there is a similar sense of claustrophobic enclosure deriving from endless, undifferentiated choice. Each door which opens for the mysterious, barefoot young woman looks identical, freewheeling away in an infinte recession of images. Why is her shirt open? Why is her kirtle made of sticks? And what is the winged monkey-like creature which accompanies her? Sexuality seethes beneath the surface of the painting: the exposed breasts, the stick-skirt which looks like a nest enclosing a purple egg; the labial folds of the cloth; the mysterious, endless possibilities which dissipate into a kind of incarceration. But there's something witchy here, too; the little animal is like the girl's familiar, and its wings suggest the possibility of a new perspective, a possibility of transcendence or escape. The girl is her own broomstick. Can she escape the maze simple by taking off, as to a witches' sabbat? Her eyes seem fixed upwards: is she looking up at a taller (male?) figure, whom we cannot see - or is she resolutely calculating her means of escape, a female Daedalus with no Icarus to be responsible for?


Anonymous said...

Um, the Wyeth painting...
"Christine" is actually a neighbor of Wyeth's in Maine. The house is also in Maine (still there and preserved to the appearance in the painting). Oh and the frail Christine is actually handicapped and has very little use of her legs; she would essentially crawl instead of walk, hence the pose. Lastly, his wife sat in for Christine as the model. Thought you'd want to know considering the painting has been such a part of your life for so long (?...)

Bo said...

Ah, this is a famous aesthetic issue, of course! Christina's World is a painting of a handicapped girl sitting in front of a Maine farmhouse in exactly the same way that Millais's 'Ophelia' is a painting of Elizabeth Siddal lying in a bath of tepid water. On one level, yes, of course that is exactly what went into making the image. On another more profound level, it has nothing to do with the sinister atmospherics of the painting, which I find actively frightening and ambiguous.

Thanks for the background--v. interesting!


It's CHRISTINA (Olsen) and not (sic) "Christine", by way of clarification of the first comment poster here.

The Olsens ( Christina and Alvaro, her brother), like the Kuerners, were close friends of Andrew Wyeth's. Two large books record AW's attentive, patient and empathetic record of their lives-- some of his finest work. The two books feature texts written by Wyeth's wife, Betsy.

(link to the Kuerner book):

(link to the Olsen book):

Thanks for your blog post.


Blage said...

Have also been quite captivated by these two paintings for many years....Tanning is favorite. Could be as you state, there is every where and no where to go at the same time... and a woman alone and vulnerable, yet brave. The two also have this scratchy starkness, but a degree of warmth also.

Simon de Rivaz said...

It appears you have confused the poetic with the aesthetic. If I see a girl lying in a cold bath of water - I automatically start writing a story in my head to explain what I see, my own personal mythology. While interesting as a fine point in all the thoughts I am capable of, it is not necessarily true or useful.

Bo said...

Um, er...yeah.

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