Christina’s World Conquered?

If you went to college around the time that I did, or maybe at other times, you might remember this painting on many dorm room walls:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948

Groaning aloud?  Happy to see it again?  Never seen it before?  Read on!

I have a vague recollection of an art reproduction sale that must have gone from college to college, selling all students the same Picasso, the same Matisse, the same Monet, the same Van Gogh, and “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.  This painting came to mind somewhat inexplicably this weekend, as I was driving across the Midwest and the colors of the fields and landscape were that Christina’s-World-brown. I say inexplicably because I’ve driven on that same road at the same time of year many many times, so why I was reminded of it now, when I haven’t thought of that painting in years, I don’t know.  But there it is, in my head, all the same.  So I started wondering why that painting was widely available in the late 80s/early 90s.  And why did that painting appeal to me and to so many other college students? Partly, I’m sure, it’s appeal had to do with what was available to us.  At the time, I just couldn’t handle the same Picasso, the same Matisse, the same Monet, etc, and I needed to put something on my wall.  Although it’s a somewhat disturbing painting in my opinion (Really!  Look at how she’s sitting!), it was less disturbing than the same old same old (Yes, I realize that I just called some amazing artists the same old same old.  Sorry.)  As far as why it was included in art sales in the late 90s/early 90s, that’s simple, although I had to look it up.  Remember the Helga pictures?  They were paintings that Wyeth did over a 15 year period, some of them “intimate,”  of a woman he knew named Helga.  His wife supposedly didn’t know anything about them until they came to light in the mid-80’s, they were purchased as a group, exhibited, then sold.  And they were in the news.  This article about it is pretty interesting if you want more info. Here are a couple for your viewing pleasure:

Andrew Wyeth, Helga, “Braids,” 1979

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Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers, and Acqua Alta, Oh My!

I’ve been chastised over my last post.  No pretty pictures.  So let me begin with a pretty picture. Here you go:

John Singer Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers, 1880-2

This isn’t what I usually think of when I think of Sargent.  I usually think of a portrait, like this:

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

Or these:

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883-4

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882

Or even this:

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Dancer, 1880-1

So back to the first image,  Sargent’s “The Venetian Bead Stringers.”  What do you get about this profession in late 19th century Venice from looking at the picture?  It looks like bead stringing was done by women (which it was), in the dark (which it might have been), and it doesn’t look like work that was too exciting, either (which it wasn’t). Look at this image, though, also of bead stringers in Venice, painted at the same time:

Robert Frederick Blum, Venetian Bead Stringers, 1887-8

They’re outside, it’s light, one of them is laughing, they’re talking.  It might not be exciting work, but they don’t look nearly as bored and despondent as the women in Sargent’s painting.   Both are definitely romanticized depictions, although both are painted in such a way that they look like they could be real scenes, painted as they occurred, wouldn’t you agree? So what’s the deal?  To figure this out, let’s look briefly at 19th century Venetian bead stringing, which in itself sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  Turns out it’s not.  In the mid 19th century, it was done by poor women who were not well paid. Bead stringing was not going to get them out of their financial hole.  These women worked mostly in their homes and were paid by the piece. It makes sense that they would work outside, then, doesn’t it, where the light is better.  I’m trying to imagine working with tiny beads in that dark room in the Sargent painting, and it makes my eyes hurt just thinking about it.  If you want to learn more about Venetian bead stringers and makers from the middle ages on, check out chapter 2 in the Google book, “Beads and bead makers: gender, material culture, and meaning.”  (The editors/writers definitely have an agenda, but to be fair, they state it clearly in their title, and it’s an interesting read.)

I expected to find that one of these paintings was a true depiction, and one wasn’t.  That one was an accurate representation of the plight of Venetian bead stringers, and clearly by using the word “plight”, I’m showing that I expected this to be Sargent’s.  But it turns out that both are probably fairly accurate, or at least possible, in their own way.  Either could probably be used as an illustration of bead stringing in Venice in the 1880s, but neither gives the whole story. I get so frustrated when an author uses a work of art as proof of something without explaining why.   For example, if we took either painting and used it as evidence that women in 19th century Venice dressed like this, we might be right, and we might be wrong.  Although we often assume differently, artists don’t always paint (or sculpt, or etch, etc) from life. The clothing choices could be made for many reasons — that’s what women were wearing, what women used to wear (shown maybe to evoke the good old days), the colors make the effect that the artist wanted, the draping of the fabric is fun to paint, maybe there were political or cultural reasons for choosing this clothing in these colors, and on and on.  When an author uses art as proof, the author needs to back it up with more information.

Just for fun, and because I probably won’t talk about Sargent again, I want to show you one of my Sargent favs:

John Singer Sargent, Pavement of St. Mark’s, Venice, 1880-2

I  love everything about this painting.  I love the architectural elements, the colors, that it’s San Marco in Venice.  What I love the most, though, is that it shows the uneven floor of the building due to acqua alta (high water).  I’m fascinated by this:  at certain times of year, the tides are higher, and water floods up into the square and into the church.  Over hundreds of years it’s made the floor uneven.  There’s really nothing like seeing the boards set up so that people can still get into the church over the water.  Well, maybe seeing the undulating floor and knowing what caused it is equally fascinating.  And that people over the centuries have walked on these same floors.  Another connection with the past.

Acqua Alta, San Marco, Venice

Historical Objects for World Peace!

I’m always looking for new podcasts (suggestions appreciated!).  So many art and history podcasts are stuffy and honestly, kind of boring.  Which is too bad, because art and history are fun!  Exciting!  Most interesting!  So I listened to one this morning that’s been on my Ipod for awhile — the not-so-thrilling sounding  “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”   It was done last year by the director of the British Museum, and I have to admit that I was somewhat fascinated as I listened to the first episode in the series.  The introduction, which took up quite a bit of the 13 minute podcast, was almost more interesting than the actual object of the day, the mummy of Hornedjitef from Thebes, Egypt,  from about 220 BCE.  Before getting to the mummy, the director, Neil MacGregor, talked about people visiting the British Museum (all the objects in the series are there):  “When people come to the museum, they choose their own object and make their own journey around the world and through time.  But I think what they will find is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s, and when that happens, you no longer have a history of particular people or a nation, but a story of endless connections.”   Yes! The history of the world isn’t a history of individual cultures and civilizations, but rather a history of all of these groups together and how they interacted. This is what I find most interesting about history — who interacted with whom, in what way, in what place, at what time.  What did they share with each other?  How did they influence each other’s lives?

As part of this podcast, MacGregor interviewed Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer.  He asked her what she thought about “the history of the world as one shared story.”  She said that if she could determine a worldwide method of educating children,  she’d “make every child in the world learn a brief history of the entire world focused on the common ground.  It would examine how people perceive their relationship to each other, to the planet, and to the universe, and it would see human history as a kind of ongoing joint project where one lot of people picked up where another lot left off.”   I’m very intrigued by this.  What a great way to promote understanding, maybe even empathy!   If you emphasize the commonalities in world history — the ways that we’re all the same, the things we have in common — in such a way that doesn’t push differences under the rug, but celebrates them, and doesn’t ignore the conflicts that happened throughout history, but discusses them intelligently from all sides, imagine how much more understanding we and our kids would have for other cultures and other ways of life, and for each other and our world as a whole.  This is what’s needed — more of a world view, less us and them, but a universal we.  (Yes, this is a blog about art.  I’m getting a little sidetracked. Or am I??!!)

The rest of the podcast is pretty interesting, too — the British Museum’s specialist on mummies talks about advances in studying mummies in the last twenty years, and he hits on one of my favorite themes (related to my aforementioned “most interesting thing about history”) — what the materials that an object is made of can tell us about contact between cultures at the time.  I so love this — they studied the composition of the bitumen (black  tar-like substance) on some of the mummy cases and determined that it was from the Dead Sea.  Now that’s not that far from Egypt, but things like this can tell us about trade routes and who was in touch with whom.  Like I said, fascinating.

MacGregor’s book on the same subject came out a couple of weeks ago, and it looks good, too.  Still, I plan to take it in 13-14 minute audio chunks.  Talking about art without being able to see it is obviously challenging, and I’m curious to see how that goes.  If you check out the book, though, let me know!