Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Reality of Winter

Brandywine River, November 2014

The day after Thanksgiving last year I had reason to meet some friends up in Wilmington, Delaware, and I decided to drive up a bit early so I would have time to see the paintings of Andrew Wyeth at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Wyeth has marked the various stages of my life in America. I saw my first Wyeth in 1979, though only in reproduction. I’d just graduated from the University of Edinburgh, and was traveling around the US in an attempt to understand the country where I had spent the first six years of my life. In the bookstore of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, a picture on the front of a book caught my eye was – a simple window of a clapboard house with a glimpse of red geraniums on the far windowsill. I loved the framing of the window within a window and the mere suggestion of red in the darkness and clutter within. I bought the book as a present for my mother, an artist herself.

Geraniums by Andrew Wyeth
When I first moved to Washington in 1987, the National Gallery of Art was exhibiting Wyeth’s controversial Helga paintings, over 240 paintings and drawings of a single model, Wyeth’s Chadd’s Ford neighbor, Helga Testorf. It was said that Wyeth had kept these modelling sessions secret from his wife for 15 years, and the frankly erotic charge given off by the many nudes fueled rumors that Helga was more than just his model. But as I wandered around the exhibit, I was as taken by the settings of the paintings as by Helga’s powerful female form – the splintered paint on the weathered houses, the silvered bark of the naked trees, and the glossy transparency of the river water. 

Cape Coat Helga by Andrew Wyeth
Last November as I drove up Route 52 through the Brandywine Valley towards Chadds Ford, there were lines of snow in the folds of the stark empty fields, and I realized I was looking at a quintessential Wyeth landscape - spare, uncompromising, without illusions. Wyeth once said: “I love Pennsylvania in the winter. It’s not pretty...The Brandywine’s sort of ugly, looking like what George Washington must have felt when he camped at Valley Forge. Tough living.” 

John Updike also loved the country of south-eastern Pennsylvania. He grew up on a farm in Shillington near Reading, and as a writer he was “full of a Pennsylvania thing I wanted to say.” The result was, among others, the wonderful Olinger stories and the four Rabbit books, two of which won Pulitzer prizes. He and Wyeth were linked by a sensibility as well as a landscape.
Winter was Wyeth’s favorite season. “I love the bleakness of winter and snow and get a thrill out of the chill... My winter scenes differ from those of other artists in that they’re not romantic. No! They capture that marvelous, lonely bleakness – the quiet, the chill reality of winter.”

It was in that season that he died - in his own bed in Chadds Ford on January 16, 2009. In the novel, The Centaur, Updike seems to have prefigured the painter’s last view from his bedroom window: 
“A few frost-ferns had sprouted from the lower corners of the upper panes. The early sun lay tan on the stubble of the big field across the dirt road. The road was pink. The bare trees took white on their sun side; a curious ruddiness was caught in their twigs. Everything looked frozen; the two strands of telephone wire looked locked into place in the sky’s blue ice. It was January...”
Remarkably, John Updike died a mere 11 days after Wyeth, on January 27. Coincidence? I think not. 

Kuerners Farm House, Chadds Ford by Andrew Wyeth