Art | Andrew Wyeth in China

Andrew Wyeth in Beijing & Hong Kong
Yuan Space, Beijing, China
14th April – 12th May, 2012
Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center
24th – 30th May, 2012
Christie’s, New York, USA
Date to be announced, September, 2012

When Snoopy’s dog house burned down in November 1966, sadly his Van Gogh was destroyed along with it, but the strip’s cartoonist, Charles M Schulz, saw to it that the painting was quickly replaced with one by the artist Andrew Wyeth, of whose work he was a great admirer. In 1977 Wyeth was the first American artist since John Singer Sargent to be elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. A Wyeth retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006, running over 15 weeks, drew more than 175,000 visitors, the museum’s highest-ever attendance for a living artist. In 2007 he received the National Medal of Arts from George W Bush and in the same year, in the Springfield Up episode of The Simpsons, Mr Burns has a painting of Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World, 1948 – MoMA Collection, bought in 1948 for $1800 – in his den, except that in his version Burns lanky body replaces the more shapely female figure. The entire neighbourhood of Thunder Hill in the village of Oakland Mills, Columbia in Maryland has street names derived from his paintings. But although Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was one of the most popular and revered artists in the history of American art, perhaps it was for this very popularity that he was also one of its most criticised, especially within the art world. According to Michael Kimmelman, who wrote Wyeth’s obituary in The New York Times: ‘Because of his popularity – a bad sign to many art world insiders – Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject. ‘Kimmelman went on to say that art critics mostly heaped abuse on Wyeth’s work, saying he gave realism a bad name. Hopper’s realism was okay, apparently, but Wyeth’s wasn’t. Some experts regarded him as a facile realist, not an artist but merely an illustrator. Lashing out in all directions and perhaps further isolating himself, Wyeth expressed general disdain for the abstract expressionists. And so the antagonistic situation festered and boiled throughout the latter part of his life.

Andrew Wyeth was born into an artistic family in Chadds Ford, a small town in Pennsylania, about 30 miles from Philadelphia. His father NC Wyeth was a well-known illustrator, whose fame and talent in the 1920s attracted the attention of celebrities such as F Scott Fitzgerald who would come to visit him. NC drove his frail and ailing son – too feeble to attend school – hard, pushing him to develop drawing skills at an early age with the obsessive goal of making him follow in his father’s footsteps and become an illustrator. But Andrew resisted, preferring to paint the deserted landscapes he discovered on his wanderings. He liked the idea that figures could be implicit in his paintings but nevertheless went on to include in them his friends, a black handyman (A Crow Flew By 1949-50), and neighbours Karl and Anna Kuerner. Although he adapted portraits of others to include details of his father, who died in 1945, Wyatt never painted him. His ‘Helga‘ series of more than 200 paintings and sketches came with a whiff of scandal – he didn’t tell his wife about them until they were finished in 1985 – and received national publicity, travelling to major cities throughout the USA. These intimate studies – many of them full figure nudes – of neighbour Helga Testorf, made him very rich.

In Wyeth’s style of painting, that became known as ‘Magic’ Realism, everyday scenes are imbued with a dream-like air of mystery, coupled with barely concealed melancholy. He recorded the arid Pennsylvania and Maine landscapes, rural houses, and rickety shacks with great detail, painting in each tiny blade of grass, individual strands of hair, and every subtle nuance of light and shadow. The Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford houses much of the Wyeth collection.

Wyeth’s work was as rural as Warhol’s was urban, his nudes as earthy as Warhol’s girls (and boys) were dirty, but while the rural can easily look picturesque to the city dweller, and might appear to pander even unintentionally to wide appeal, urban art is by nature of its situation radical and intended for a strictly limited, edgier audience. Ubiquity and the passage of time can render almost any image passé – The Mona Lisa, The Hay Wain, Van Gogh’s SunflowersThe Scream – and perhaps Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World has fallen victim to the same fate. But Warhol’s once iconoclastic Marilyn Diptych has, too – so far to a somewhat lesser extent – and The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone LivingDamien Hirst’s shark – will not be immune.

It’s not so surprising, then, that Wyeth’s work as opposed to Warhol’s and Pollock’s was deemed acceptable to the powers that be in 1980s China, where it became immensley popular. The press release for the forthcoming Andrew Wyeth in China exhibitions contains the following quote from Li Xian Ting – often called the godfather of Chinese contemporary avant-garde – academic consultant to the exhibition, who on this occasion may well be toeing the party line: ‘When Wyeth’s work first caught the eyes of artists of this generation, we were mainly under the influence of Socialist Realism from the 40s and (Russian) Peredvizhniki art in which the relation [sic] between the narrative and ideology featured heavily. Historically, young Chinese artists’ classical training was figurative and representational. At the time, the only way to rebel against Social Realism was to embrace Modernism, entailing a complete abandon [sic] of representation. This would have implied, starting from zero to reincarnate a new self under the banners of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. And just as artists found themselves at this impasse, Wyeth’s works appeared. They were melancholic, poetic, but at the same time they developed on the skills and possibilities of representation. This deeply moved the burgeoning Chinese artists and inspired many to ask themselves the question: is it possible for us to hold on to the artistic training we grow up with, and still create something new that is different from Modernist art? And obviously, Wyeth provided them with such a possibility.’ Perhaps Chinese conservatism isn’t so far removed from Middle America’s. Meanwhile, Chinese conceptual artist, architect, designer and activist Ai Weiwei’s first solo exhibition in Italy wow’s the West at the Lisson gallery in Milan until 25th May, 2012.

Paintings from top
Study for ‘Lovers’, 1981
Drybrush and watercolor on paper
© Andrew Wyeth

Citizen Clark, 1957
Drybrush and watercolor on paper laid down on board
©Andrew Wyeth, Private Collection

Faraway, 1952
(Portrait of the artist’s son, Jamie)
Drybrush on paper
© Andrew Wyeth

The Works of Andrew Wyeth is organized by Yuan Space in cooperation with Christie’s and Adelson Galleries

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