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:
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:
So back to Christina’s World. There’s something about it — a yearning maybe, or a longing — that might be appealing. But to me, this painting is not just tinged with sadness, it’s overflowing with it. Look at how uncomfortable her position is. She looks like she’s in pain. Can she get up? Why is she out in a field? How did she get there? Is she really going to crawl or drag herself all the way back to the house? (If so, her arms must be really strong.) It turns out that there’s a very good reason for all of this. This painting shows us Christina Olson on her farm in Maine. She was a neighbor of Wyeth’s who he painted many times, and she had polio. Christina looks uncomfortable because she is. This really is her world — it’s hard for her to get around, so she doesn’t go far. But it’s more complicated than that, I think. This quote by Wyeth is on the label for this painting at MOMA: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” What in the painting makes us think that she’s conquered “a life which most people would consider hopeless?” Wyeth shows us a desolate world, stark, forlorn, barren. And sometimes that’s ok. Sometimes that’s beautiful and awe-inspring and real. But I don’t see anything in this painting that tells me that Christina is ok with it. I’d like to think that she loves this world, that she’s ok with her sphere being so limited, at least most of the time, but I don’t get that from this painting. She looks awkward, and we can’t see her face, so any hope or contentment that may be in her expression is invisible to us. There’s nothing in the landscape or the house that says, “I’m cool with this world, with this life. I’ve conquered hopelessness!” I’d be more inclined to believe that if the grass were green. Or if her body position looked more comfortable. Or if the sky were even a tad more blue.
I have some unfinished business with this painting. Clearly.
The other thing for me about this painting is that there have been times when I’ve collapsed into a field similar to this one to cry, or freak out, or scream in frustration, without anyone else around. So for me, I associate it with that. Isn’t this what we do? We flip through our own experiences and they inform how we view art, how we feel about it, and how it affects us. Therein lies so much of the beauty of art, don’t you think?