The last dynasty
from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013 |
At some point during the 1800s, when nobody was looking, an institution passed away that for centuries had been a fixture of the visual arts: the artistic dynasty, the family of painters who, across several generations, maintained a consistent aesthetic profile. One is put in mind of this institution, and of its demise, by a new show at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, Wyeth Vertigo, that is devoted to N. C. Wyeth, his son Andrew, and his grandson Jamie. Taken together, these three men represent what is surely the latest, and quite probably the last, dynasty that we shall see in Western art. It has been a long time since we have had a dynasty-certainly a distinguished dynasty-that can compare with the Wyeths. To find their like, one would have to go back to Charles Willson Peale and his sons Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphaelle, and Titian Ramsay Peale (not to mention his six other children) from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. Before that, one looks to Pieter Brueghel and his sundry sons and grandsons, to Paolo Veronese and Giambattista Tiepolo and their respective descendants.
Why the artistic dynasty ceased to be is not a mystery. The Old Masters, by their very nature, were conservative, as befits a tradition in which instruction took place in studios and both technique and pictorial convention were handed down almost as heirlooms from one generation to the next. Surely there were shifts in style across the generations, but those shifts seemed less essential to older art than they do now, when artistic fashions change as frequently as hemlines. In the days when painting occupied a position somewhere between a profession and a trade, it made perfect sense for Pieter Brueghel the Younger to reenact, to the extent of his talents, the themes and tropes of his far greater father. But for an artist born on this side of 1850 to paint as his father had done twenty-five years earlier or his grandfather fifty years earlier, would surely seem perverse: for the present age demands of each artist that he create something new and radically individual.
This insistence naturally contravenes the very premise of an artistic dynasty, which can exist only where there is a powerful genetic, stylistic, and thematic continuity. The fact that Picasso's father was a painter and that his daughter Paloma is variously artistic does not constitute a dynasty, any more than the fact that the sculptor Kiki Smith has followed in the footsteps of her father, Tony Smith. There is such disparity between these generations, in style and, as regards Picasso, in stature, that the continuity that defines an artistic dynasty is nowhere to be found. Indeed, it is worth observing in passing that, of late, the visual arts in general have exhibited little of the nepotism that is common among lawyers, architects, accountants, novelists, and even statesmen.
And then there are the three Wyeths, who, over the past hundred years and more, have painted images whose stylistic and thematic continuity is striking across their several generations. Each of the Wyeths is, as the age demands, an individual, but their similarities-which are the focus of the Shelburne exhibition-far outweigh their differences.
You could, for example, be excused for thinking that all three had spent their waking lives outdoors amid the raw, spare, almost Gothic landscapes and seascapes of New England (or Pennsylvania in the case of Jamie). The works of N.C. Wyeth that are on view at Shelburne, such as Dark Harbor Fishermen (Fig. 3) or Deep Cove Lobster Man, abound in men doing manly things in boats. In his son Andrew's Soaring (Fig. 2), hawks glide menacingly through the pristine air, while in The Hunter (Fig. 4), a diminutive human figure is barely visible beneath the tree branches that are the painting's real point. Here, too, the sere and unyielding nature of a mythic New England stands front and center. Jamie Wyeth, meanwhile, returns to the sea in Spindrift (Fig. 11), where an island, lashed by the white waters of the surf, is seen from far above in the sort of airborne perspective that recurs so frequently in all three of the Wyeths. His Comet (Fig. 1) depicts a towering lighthouse at dusk, with a tiny wisp of white above it-presumably the titular comet-as well as a seagull resting contentedly at its base.
As the last painting reminds us, all three Wyeths exhibit a striking affinity for birds, birds of prey as well as seagulls, who appear to represent for them not only a kind of rugged freedom, but also an escape from earth's gravitational tug and from the corrupt and compromised ways of men. In Andrew Wyeth's Soaring (Fig. 2), an extremely accomplished painting and perhaps the best in the present exhibition, the lazy gyrations of these birds of prey are seen, once again, from an airborne perspective even higher than their orbits. Here, as in those other works, the artist does not merely adopt a "bird's-eye view," he seems shamanistically to become one with the birds, to look down with no benign eye on the earth below, the domain of mere women and men.
This implicit preference for nature over humanity extends even to the much publicized Helga portraits, those abundant depictions of a single model, clothed and unclothed, that Andrew Wyeth painted toward the end of his career. With her granitic mien and lofty Teutonic cheekbones, Helga looks not only as though she too had spent a lifetime out of doors, but as though she were one with the elements, a force of nature herself.
What variously mesmerized and dismayed the public when the Helga paintings were first exhibited was that they were so unapologetically representational. In fact, all three Wyeths have been committed figural painters, a preference that is less impressive in N. C. Wyeth, a contemporary of Winslow Homer, than it is in Andrew Wyeth, the compeer of Pollock and Ad Reinhardt, or Jamie Wyeth, who came of age in Warhol's Factory and can count video, installation, and soundscape artists as his coevals.
The Helga portraits manifest an almost ornery commitment to detail that is no less evident in Andrew Wyeth's far earlier painting Winter Fields (Fig. 12), which depicts a dead crow lying on its side. Though this painting is slightly more schematic than the artist's subsequent works, it is a tour de force of unyielding observation. Each feather has been given its posthumous tribute, each scale of the bird's twisted talons, each clump of underbrush in the depleted distance. Surely Andrew Wyeth is not the only artist of recent years to oppose, through insistent observation, the general subjectivity that artists have favored since the end of the nineteenth century. But in him one senses an almost surly will to power over the details of the visible world, a refusal to surrender to that subjectivity and thus to give up an inch of self-mastery. If he had been a sculptor, one suspects that his chosen medium would be porphyry, the hardest stone known to art, rather than anything as pliant and yielding as clay or wood.
With respect to this observable reality, Jamie Wyeth resembles his grandfather more than his father: both men favor more dramatic compositions than Andrew does, with brighter, life-affirming palettes and a trace of impressionistic freedom in the handling of paint. That freedom, which is evident in N. C. Wyeth's Dark Harbor Fishermen (Fig. 3) and Deep Cove Lobster Man (both of them inspired by American scene painters like Grant Wood and Rockwell Kent) is especially apparent in more overtly illustrational works like Just as the Baby's Feet Cleared the Ground (Fig. 6). This painting, which depicts an eagle saving an infant from a ravenous wolf, strongly recalls the artist's great illustrations for the Scribner editions of Treasure Island (1911) and Kidnapped (1913). Its style and energy, as well as the impasted texture of its paint, are revived in Jamie Wyeth's Portrait of a Vulture, which depicts several of these rapacious creatures airborne against a shrill yellow sky (Fig. 5).
But perhaps the most useful lesson to be drawn from Portrait of a Vulture is that the dominant continuity that exists among the three generations of the Wyeths-beyond their Gothic sensibility-is an illustrational sense of painting's power and mission. This quality clearly proceeds from N. C. Wyeth, perhaps the pre-eminent American illustrator of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Now, illustration's foremost virtue (or its besetting sin, depending on your perspective) is its immediate legibility. This stands in direct opposition to so much modern and contemporary art, which not only avoids representation, but seems to view obscurity as a proof and warrant of one's artistic temperament. Simply put, people who find themselves perplexed, even angered by modern and contemporary art have little problem responding to the Wyeths.
But that fact does not seem entirely congenial to the curator of the Shelburne show or to some of the contributors to the catalogue. Rather Wyeth Vertigo presumes to offer up a revisionist assessment of the Wyeth dynasty. According to the museum's director, Thomas Denenberg, the show "explores the edgy and unresolved tensions encoded in the seemingly realistic works by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth." And while it is true enough that all three men seem to be contentious and argumentative New Englanders whose works have an undeniable edge of anxiety to them, one must question whether it is necessary or desirable or even accurate to turn them into vanguardists. Because their art often rises to a high level of formal and expressive competence, that achievement in itself may be all that we need, or are able, to ask of them.
Wyeth Vertigo is on view at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont from June 22 to October 31. The accompanying catalogue is published by the University Press of New England.