I found myself on hands and knees, and then even prone on my stomach while working in my vegetable garden yesterday. Whenever this happens, I am aware of channeling “Christina’s World”. It is an odd place to be. Such a posture outside with my face inches from the lovely pungent dirt makes me feel reverent and disabled, focused and inept all at once. I usually fall to my knees first, in a fit of passionate weeding, and then as I reach further and further from my centered kneel, I extend an arm down to support myself, and before long, I am lying extended across the ground relentlessly extracting every last offending plant that wasn’t either officially planted or noted as a wild food plant.
Andrew Wyeth’s painting was pictured in one of the few books about 20th century art that I had at home when I was a teenager. I can remember studying it and other Wyeths to try to figure out how Wyeth achieved that level of representation. This was before I went to art school in New York City and learned to adopt a more scornful attitude to realists like Wyeth.
So it feels a bit circular to be back in the verdant energy of a garden, thinking about Andrew Wyeth, or rather Christina. The figure in the painting is based on Wyeth’s wife-to-be crossed with the matriarch of the family who Wyeth portrayed relentlessly throughout his painting career who was crippled and named Christina. I imagine that the painted Christina had arrived in her current location accompanied by other people, but at this moment, suddenly appears as if alone, gazing at the far away house. That is one of the tensions of the painting…why is she on the ground, and how will she locomote to the house? If someone suggested to a painter that this would be a good subject for a landscape painting, I don’t think most of us would agree. It sounds pretty “out there” as a subject idea. The second tension in the painting is the relative size of the figure against the large expanse of grassy hillside. The figure is dwarfed and rendered more pitiful. A final tension is perhaps my favorite one…the tension of representation in painting; can the physicality of the painted surface disappear for extended periods of time as we revel in the created illusion? How insistent is the painted surface about being recognized in all its glorious materiality?
Looking at the painting today, with the freedom of an ex-art student, I am smitten with Wyeth’s ability to be the woman in the painting. More than most other famous paintings of women by men that I can think of, we are experiencing Christina’s world when we look at the painting. She is not posing for us or the artist, she is dealing with her situation, and we are not even privy to what her face says. We are privy instead to almost exactly what she is looking at , we just have a slightly wider angle that includes her. Like her, we have to wonder how to climb the hill, whether we will crawl or walk, what awaits us up at the desolate looking house, and whether the course grass hurts as it stabs our wrists. Egg tempera too. No wonder this painting is part of my subconscious world view.
“Christina’s World” shares with “The Scarlet Letter” a sophistication of experience that is easily lost on a younger audience. I remember staring at Christina, vaguely aware that she was somewhat crippled, though it is only alluded to visually with the depiction of her thin limbs and slightly gnarled hands, and I felt just sort of puzzled and perplexed. What was she doing on the ground? The image bothered me more than it conveyed some sort of message. (Perhaps that is, though, the greatest message) When I reread “The Scarlet Letter” a year ago or so, I was struck more than anything with amazement that it is assigned to high school students ad nauseum. How could a high school student even begin to comprehend this tale? Many high school students have never been in love, or been in a relationship. Most have not experienced first hand a great moral decision. The story is so muted, so alluded to. It is utterly restrained. I was an avid reader as a teenager, but I lacked any level of life experience to make this story come to life and it was completely lost on me. 40 years later, I was awestruck with it’s beautiful tonality and the restrained subtlety with which it is told. 40 years later, I am on my knees with Christina also.