Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World: An Interview with Director, Eleanor Yule

michael, eleanor and wyeth painting

Michael Palin and Eleonor Yule with a painting featuring Helga’s walking legs!

RosyB interviews director, Eleonor Yule, about her latest project with Michael Palin on overlooked artists which is showing tonight on BBC2 at 9pm

Andrew Wyeth – the great American tempera and watercolour painter – has featured on Vulpes Libris a number of times due to the shared interest in his work by a number of the bookfoxes.

Seen by many to be a great modern American master -his most famous work “Christina’s World” – a painting of his polio-stricken neighbour pulling herself through the grass near her farmstead home – is one of the most popular paintings possessed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here is a clip from tonight’s programme of Michael Palin on this painting.

However, Wyeth has also had his detractors with some critics deriding him over the years as being too sentimental or just an illustrator.

For me, his greatest pieces – his stunning bleak landscapes and depictions of those that survive in them – are extraordinary paintings depicting the rawness of rural American life. Never have  dead treetrunks, sinks and ceiling hooks been so evocative! His Helga collection – a collection of studies, paintings and extraordinarily realised tempera paintings (including what I think is a masterwork, “Braids” – see below)  caused a sensation when it  finally revealed to the public. Painted in secret across 15 years, many of the pictures are intimate nudes and the series was apparently kept  secret from his wife, Betsy. There was instant controversy about the nature of the relationship between Andrew Wyeth and Helga – the local woman who modelled for them.

I  recently had the pleasure of meeting  the television and film director, Eleanor Yule,  who has been working with Michael Palin on the programme Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World – which is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2.

Eleanor and Michael travelled to Pensylvannia and Maine – the setting (some might say the lead character) in  all of Wyeth’s work. They wanted to find out more about the painter and his relationship with the community who live there – many of whom are subjects in Wyeth’s works – and to bring more recognition of Wyeth’s work to a British audience. Together they tracked down the mysterious and enigmatic Helga. From the clips on the BBC website, tonight’s programme promises to be both a fascinating and entertaining insight not just into Wyeth himself – but into painting, creativity and a close community.

I was keen to find out more and asked Eleanor if she would answer a few questions for Vulpes.

 RosyB: How did this programme come about? Has Palin long has an interest in Wyeth? Were you familiar with Wyeth’s work before making the programme?

Eleanor: Myself and the producer, Mhairi McNeil, have an ongoing collaboration with Michael Palin, which started about 15 years ago to produce one-off films about painters who have been either misunderstood or overlooked and that we all share a passion for. Wyeth was the most recent artist that we felt  moved enough by to want to make a film – also his death in 2009 and the lack of knowledge about him in the UK gave us the incentive to seek a commission from the BBC.

RosyB: One of the exciting things I read is that you managed to track down and interview the real Helga – the enigmatic model behind some of what I think are Wyeth’s best works – a collection apparently built up in secret over 15 years without the knowledge of his wife.

The helga pictures cover

The Helga Pictures – featuring the wonderful “Braids” on the cover

Eleanor: The collection was built up over 15 years and produced about 250 works of the same woman. For me that’s the visual equivalent of Shakespeare’s sonnets – an act of love. The works are extraordinary and there’s not a single emotion he does not capture during their time together. It highlighted for me the fact that a model is not passive – they are actually collaborators in the creation of an art work. Helga would pose for up to 8 hours a day for Wyeth – that takes dedication, self discipline and an understanding of what he’s trying to do.

RosyB: Was it difficult finding her? Was she as you expected?

Helga was hard for us to track down. We had to play a bit of a cat and mouse game to persuade her to do the interview but it was absolutely worth it – what she says is riveting and needs to be heard.

RosyB:  I can’t wait. I think the Helga paintings are an incredible body of work and I would be very curious to see if she is anything like the character he seemed to depict. Much is made about whether or not Helga and Wyeth had an affair. Does it matter for the audience to know do you think?

Eleanor: Helga is an enigmatic figure, both in the paintings and in real life. it’s important for her mystique and the mystique of the paintings that the truth remains enigmatic – a simple yes or no answer to the affair closes down meaning in the work – it’s much more exciting not to know and let the work speak for itself.

RosyB: One thing about paintings is that in their creation they can be very solitary, quiet or insular – private. Yet the Helga pictures caused a public sensation when they finally were exhibited. I can imagine that could be very hard for very private individuals. Did you get a sense of the impact of the kind of fame Wyeth’s work attracted on quiet people/quiet communities?

Eleanor: Wyeth remains a well loved and popular figure within both his close communities of Chadds Ford, Penn, and Maine. Christina Olson, the subject of his most famous painting Christina’s World was his most celebrated muse, with thousands of people making the pilgrimage to Maine to see the farm. Many went in Christina’s own lifetime, and she did not like the attention. According to her nephew, John Olson, she woke up one morning with someone standing over her, who had broken into the farm just to ogle at her!

Christina's world

Christina’s World – one of the most beloved and popular paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

RosyB:  Crikey! That’s rather creepy! Mind you, there is an amazing clip I saw from your programme of two of Wyeth’s subjects – George and Helen Sipala – talking about how Wyeth himself would creep into their house in order to watch them asleep in bed in the morning for his painting, The Marriage. (See clip here.) I was amazed by the level of intimacy he seemed to be allowed by his subjects and the resulting work really does have the feel of watching a very real relationship.

Palin talks about the stories in Wyeth’s works, I think for me it’s  the way he captures a real place, real weather – sometimes in just quick sketches and watercolours – that I find so powerful – and also the sense of the relationship between the individual and the elements/landscape/place. I get a real sense of an artist very rooted in place and connected to the earth and the seasons. What kind of effect did being in the places and landscapes Wyeth depicted have ?

Eleanor: My personal take on Wyeth is that he was a landscape painter – even his portraits are landscapes. The land and its history was incredibly important to him. It gave him a very clear sense of his own identity, even though his family were of Swiss German origin. In many of his works there’s an underlying dark shadow, reflective of the bloody battles America fought for the land and also the hardship suffered by many of the fishermen and farmers in trying to survive. Wyeth’s father N.C.Wyeth the famous illustrator was a huge influence and although his son’s work is very different, Andrew shared his father’s interest in American land and history.

RosyB: The stature of Wyeth is still a hotly debated topic. Why do you think this is and what do you think of him as an artist after making this film?

Eleanor: Probably one of the great masters in his ability to handle tempera, his technical skills were staggering. Not surprising after painting every day for over seven decades.

RosyB:  Eleanor, thanks so much for talking to VL and from the clips on the BBC website it looks like a fascinating insight into a painter I’ve long been interested in and the lively community of people who surrounded him.  I’ll definitely be watching and hope our interested readers will too.

Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2. 

More about this programme, including fascinating clips, from the BBC website

Bookfox Jackie on Wyeth’s landscapes

Bookfox RosyB on the Power of Art Books, featuring the Helga Pictures

5 comments on “Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World: An Interview with Director, Eleanor Yule

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    December 29, 2013

    Fascinating piece. I loved Palin’s programme on the Scottish Colourists so this should be worth watching!

  2. Jackie
    December 29, 2013

    Terrific interview and I hope this program eventually airs in the US, the clips whetted my appetite. It’s odd thinking he’s not well known in the UK, as he’s one of the few modern artists that most Americans have heard of.
    I agree with Ms. Yule that “even his portraits are landscapes”. And I like her take on the Helga controversy.
    Really enjoyed this piece and thanks to Rosy and Ms. Yule for the great interview!

  3. Andrew Marriott
    December 30, 2013

    Programme was a triumph. I knew little of this artist until tuning in tonight. I found an interesting clip via You Tube from the American Antiques Roadshow where one of his paintings was assessed. Also found interview with his son very interesting. Top job by Palin and his team

  4. rosyb
    December 30, 2013

    I agree, the interview with the son was fascinating. And the secretive nature of a lot of his painting – not just Helga. That quite appealed to me. I really enjoyed the interview with the Sibalas who seemed so lively and interesting. The only thing I’d have liked to have seen is the bleakness of the landscape in winter. I read Wyeth saying he preferred winter months to summer and a lot of his paintings have that slightly harsher feel from the weather and landscape so I would have been interested to see the real place at that time of year. But it did give a very strong sense of the community and the close relationships between the people there. I loved the idea you’d just bump into Wyeth doing his thing on your farm or in your house…

  5. eugene magowan
    January 3, 2014

    Lovely programme, a joy to watch… a visual treasure in itself, showing… not telling. Beautiful.

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This entry was posted on December 29, 2013 by in Entries by Rosy, Uncategorized.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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