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.
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.
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!
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.