Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 21, 2017--Best of Midcoast: Anna Christina's Skin

I am taking a bloggerman's holiday and over the next five or six days will repost some of my favorite Midcoast stories. Here's the first one about Andrew Wyeth and Anna Christina, his inspiration and model for Christina's World.

Anna Christina's Skin
He said:
The shadow of her head against a door has a ghostly quality, eerie, fateful, a symbol of New England people in the past—as they really were. There’s everything about her—her hand pushing a pie plate toward you, or putting wood in a stove. There’s a feeling that, yes, you’re seeing something that’s happening momentarily, but is also a symbol of what’s always happening in Maine. The eternity of a moment.
He continued:
When you get to something as mammoth as she is, all the dirt and grime and slight things evaporate and you se before you the power of the queen of Sweden sitting there, looking at you. Our measly minds pick up a speck of dirt on her leg or bare thigh and we’re clouded by that. She puts things in proper position. All the feelings of ourselves and our little delicacies disappear. Knocks me right in the teeth.
On another occasion, when he noticed she was soiled by a kitten that had eaten too many mice, he said:
“I’d better wash you face.” And she would answer, “All right.”
As he moved the cloth across her heavy, wrinkled face, he said:
“You have the most marvelous end to your nose, a little delicate thing that happens.” Touching that head was a terrific experience. I was in awe of it. She was just like blueberries to me.
Then, 30 years later, at the end, just before she died, sitting by the open kitchen door, itself transformed into a canvas of gray from the light of the fog that had persisted for a week, he said:
The fog crept into all the tonalities of her skin. . . . It brought out the intensity of her eyes, the light pinks around her eyelids, her mouth. . . . Every now and then she would look up at the clock which was up above and she had the strangest expression. . . . A powerful face with a great deal of fortitude . . . . Terrific power in her strong neck. And there she was without any affectation.
She is, was Anna Christina Olson, who he recalled first seeing “crawling like a crab” across the mown hill upon which the bay-weathered Olson house still stands, she is obviously the Christina of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World. And the house in which she lived with her parents and after they died with her brother Alvaro, it is just across the St. George River from us, out on Hathorne Point. Just up the road from where Andrew and Betsy Wyeth lived.
In spite of the proximity, which we knew about before arriving, and the easy opportunity to step literally into her and his world, it took us a while to get there since, I confess, art-snob that I am, I have always thought of the painting as, at its best, a piece of heart-tugging illustration. Not that far removed from the other intoxicating sentimentalities of the work of that other most-popular New England artist, Norman Rockwell.
But, but, after visiting the Olson house late last week and after that reading through Richard Meryman’s serviceable biography of Wyeth (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life), having these words directly from the artist and experiencing through them his lifelong rapturous appreciation and respect for the outer and inner beauty of the very crippled and conventionally ugly Christina, has forced me to take another look at the work and at Wyeth himself.
His work for me has been too much about dryness. This could be a consequence of his basic choice of medium—pre-Renaissance egg tempera on panel. But perhaps for Christina, crippled from the waist down since adolescence, the world that Christina inhabited sereness is appropriate.
Here from Meryman the actual Christina and a glimpse of her life—recording Wyeth’s first visit:
Entering the kitchen, Wyeth was cordial but courtly—respectful of the dignity of Christina’s witchlike looks. Her right eye looked at Wyeth. Her left eye, a small brown pupil in a murky white ball, stared off toward some invisible spot. A single tooth like a post in her mouth. Her arms were skeletal, her hands contorted back at the wrists. She lived marooned on her straight-backed cockeyed kitchen chair; its rear leg worn short from hitching across the rutted linoleum floor between the table and the stove. On the seat of the chair were layers of newspaper to absorb the urine.
A few years later when Wyeth brought the actor Robert Montgomery to meet Christina, after a few minutes Montgomery ran from the kitchen and once outside vomited.
Though others might see a ruin, about the house Wyeth said:
The world of New England is in that house—spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic—dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea, the Olson ancestor who fell from the yardarm of a square-rigger and was never found. It’s the doorway to the sea for me.
Artists traditionally are shameless exploiters of their sources of inspiration—use it up, move on, and hope to find more. But in Wyeth’s case, Christina served more than just as an unexpectedly beloved muse—there was clearly a chaste romance animating them (the cloth he moved upon her prematurely wrinkled face) and between them there was a lifetime of friendship and respect.

So when this week, after visiting the house and reading bits of Meryman, when I looked again at Christina’s World, this time closer than ever before—with the acknowledgment that my own much more limited imagination was fired by sitting at my own fog-enchanted kitchen door, which this morning is rising from up toward the neck of Wheeler Bay—I am finding in it and its medium both the life and simultaneous decay that were so much a part of Wyeth’s World. And for the first time truly understanding them and his and its deep appeal.

Anna Christina Olsen

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Blogger Andrew Saavedra said...

Hi Mr. Zwerling,

Are you the same Steven Zwerling who led Project GRAD about 15 years ago?

June 21, 2017  
Anonymous Ken Lindberg said...

Stephen...long enjoyed your commentaries and outlook. Thanks for that. In reading the post about Christina - I have Christina's World hanging in my office, from whence I work in the NH world of community supports for folks with disabilities - I'm taken to a place I wish I had been able to experience. Then again, I experience it often. Beyond all the artistic commentary, though, there lies a human, a beautiful human woman. Robert Montgomery - shame on him - sees the human spit. I - and I believe you - prefer to see the human spirit. One of these trips to the Pemequid peninsula to visit my brother and his lovely wife, I will finally visit the Olson home, and thank God someone so beautifully captured the desire for independence, for all the things the "rest of us" desire. Home.

June 22, 2017  
Blogger Steven Zwerling said...

Thanks for this, Ken. As you say so well, Wyeth did see her beauty. I think you will be very moved by a visit to the Olsen house. It adds another dimension to the story.

June 23, 2017  

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