January 29, 2009
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
There is, perhaps, no other American painting as recognizable and as loved as "Christina's World." The only other painting that comes to mind is "American Gothic" by Grant Wood. But for all his popularity (or because of it), Wyeth has generally been scorned by the critics. He has been called a cheap sentimentalist applying painterly tricks in the service of an empty nostalgia. New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer said simply, "he can't paint." Dave Hickey said Wyeth's palette was "mud and baby poop."
I keep coming back to the strangeness, the sense of unease that always bubbles up whenever I look at "Christina's World." Look at her hands and arms, spindly and wraith-like. Look, in particular, at the strange contortion in her right arm as she holds herself up. Something is wrong. Wyeth himself saw in Christina a kind of heroism. She was a real person living near his vacation home in Maine. She had been crippled by polio as a child but refused to use a wheelchair or to have much help at all. Wyeth admired her.
Still, I don't see much heroism in the painting. If this is nostalgia, it is not the nostalgia of wistful and pleasant longing. It’s a nostalgia closer to its Greek roots. The "algia" part of nostalgia comes from the Greek word "algos," meaning pain and grief. The pain and grief, the longing for a home, is not necessarily a curable condition. Wyeth has often been criticized for his nostalgia for a pre-modern, rural America shot through with Puritanism and a fundamental simplicity. I think the case is slightly different. Wyeth was fascinated with those kinds of solitary American scenes because they evoked for him a feeling, a not-quite-tangible sense of painful longing that is always gnawing at the corners of our experience.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 02:48 PM | Permalink