Director Glenn Holsten takes an expansive view of the life, work and legacy of American painter Andrew Wyeth in this documentary for PBS’ ‘American Masters’ series.
The key insight to emerge from Glenn Holsten’s fascinating analysis of the life and work of Andrew Wyeth is the importance placed by the great 20th-century American painter on knowing his subject. Whether it’s a startlingly intimate portrait or an evocative landscape in rural Pennsylvania or coastal Maine, the two locations that dominated his output, he believed in breathing in his surroundings; as one observer puts it, he was “uniquely alive in the world and attentive to its details.” It’s that profound personal investment in what he painted that gives the impression of stories continuing outside the frame, and also what gives Wyeth its contemplative scope.
Scheduled to air in September on PBS’ American Masters series, this is an expertly made, exhaustively researched documentary with a suitably painterly feel in its widescreen visuals. There is compositional beauty in cinematographer Phil Bradshaw’s textured images, but also the harshness and darkness that were quintessential elements of Wyeth’s art. Given the ongoing rediscovery and deeper appreciation of his work that has continued since his death in 2009, the film should find a receptive audience at festivals and art forums.
The great paradox of Wyeth’s career during his lifetime was the gap separating his considerable commercial success from his ambivalent standing with art critics, curators and historians. A retrospective of his work from 1938-66 broke attendance records at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967, seen by some 5,000 people a day. But as abstract painters like de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock ascended, Wyeth’s work was increasingly dismissed as easy, accessible, or even sentimental and old-fashioned. Often he was unfairly lumped with such purveyors of kitsch as Norman Rockwell. When his 1959 painting “Groundhog Day” was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for $35,000 — at that time a record sum for a living American artist — the backlash intensified, generating what became informally known as “The Wyeth Curse.”
Holsten’s film builds a persuasive case against that blinkered view, examining not only the mastery of technique in Wyeth’s work (drawings, watercolors, tempera, drybrush), but more importantly, the powerful emotional undercurrents. The collision of serenity and brutality in many of his bare-bones regionalist landscapes remains striking, as does the probing humanism and dignity of his portraits. The latter aspect is especially evident in his paintings of subjects from the black community in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, their hardscrabble lives written in their eyes.
Extensive detail goes into chronicling Wyeth’s family background and upbringing. The youngest of five children, he was exposed from an early age to art, poetry and literature, home-tutored by his father, the successful commercial illustrator N.C. Wyeth. He spent his childhood poring over his father’s collection of 3D stereoscopic cards and World War I memorabilia, but it was the 1925 King Vidor film The Big Parade that became an acknowledged influence, with the young Wyeth claiming he saw it close to 200 times. He learned first to draw and then to paint, moving from oils to the more muted tones of egg tempera, almost as a reaction against the bright colors and bold outlines of his father’s work.
A lovely section deals with his courtship of Betsy James, whom he met in 1939 while at the Wyeths’ summerhouse in Maine and married the following year. The self-possessed young woman effectively became Andrew’s manager at 18, going against his father by encouraging him to move away from illustration into painting. (She persuaded him to turn down a job with The Saturday Evening Post that N.C. urged him to accept.) Betsy had developed a friendship during her childhood with the dirt-poor Olson family, particularly the disabled matriarch Christina, whose witchy appearance caused most locals to keep their distance. Betsy took Andrew to meet Christina almost as a test on their first date.
That encounter of course yielded Wyeth’s most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” a classic Americana image that has influenced countless filmmakers and visual artists. Aided by commentary from the subject’s son and fellow artist Jamie Wyeth, among others, Holsten contextualizes that iconic picture with its urgent sense of yearning, and the big old house, “filled with the ghosts of the New England past,” drawing attention to every crystalline detail.
Like his association with the Olsons in Maine, Wyeth had also developed a strong bond with a neighboring farming family, the Kuerners, back in Pennsylvania, becoming a regular fixture at their home from his teen years. (“Groundhog Day” depicts the empty place at the dinner table of that family’s figurehead Karl, a former machine-gunner in the German army and a no-nonsense man of the land.) Wyeth’s paintings of the Kuerner farm and surrounding lands are given considerable attention, with the big stone houses in Chadd’s Ford suggesting permanence while the Maine coast looks more fragile, “as if the wind could blow it all away.”
There’s a haunting quality to many of these paintings — not just the obvious images associated with death, like the body of Karl Kuerner half-buried in snow, but also more seemingly tranquil pictures like the famous “Winter, 1946,” depicting a boy running down a hill, trailed by his shadow. That this work could be dismissed as “a brown-sauce view of the world” now seems unfathomable. It’s interesting that while Wyeth had many detractors in the U.S., his work was highly regarded in Japan, where its connection between man and nature struck a chord with Eastern sensibilities. “All things are changing and transient,” observes one Japanese curator, eloquently distilling the paintings’ emotional impact.
The final section of the film deals with the controversial release in 1986 of “The Helga Paintings,” a series of 247 studies of Helga Testorf, another German-born Chadd’s Ford local. Painted in secret over a 14-year period without Betsy’s knowledge, these are transfixing portraits that convey a stoical disposition with infinite nuances of mood and potent erotic mystery. “I was the force, don’t you see,” says the refreshingly candid Testorf in an interview. “I gave him confidence.”
Wyeth had no interest in the New York art scene and zero desire to travel, never failing to find new subjects “in his own back yard,” be it Pennsylvania or Maine. That makes him now seem almost reclusive, though the portrait that coalesces here is of a man who found community even in solitude. Densely packed with archival material and laced with arresting shots of the landscapes Wyeth painted, Holsten’s film is fluidly edited by Vic Carrero and delicately scored by composer Michael Aharon with lovely use of banjo and strings. It’s a respectful, layered and poignant survey of the artist’s life and work.
Production companies: Glenn Films, FreshFly
Director: Glenn Holsten
Producer: Chayne Gregg
Director of photography: Phil Bradshaw
Music: Michael Aharon
Editor: Vic Carreno
Venue: Provincetown International Film Festival
Sales: The Film Sales Co.