Monday, November 08, 2004

Lies, secrets and silence...

Yesterday I went to the Mint Museum of Art here in Charlotte to give a tour of the Andrew Wyeth Helga Pictures. From 1971 until 1985, Andrew Wyeth produced over 240 works depicting Helga Testorf, a German immigrant who was a neighbor of his in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. On display at the Mint are 70 or so of those pieces. Using tempera, watercolor, drybrush, and various drawing techniques, Wyeth created the most extensive series by any American artist of any single model. The curator who gave the docent lecture on this show said that he was unaware of such an accomplishment by any artist of any nationality. Helga is shown in a peasant dress, a dark green cape coat, a brown sheepskin jacket, turtlenecks of various colors, and nude. She is shown indoors, outdoors, in snow, in sunshine, asleep, and daydreaming. I was scheduled to give the tour at 4 PM, so being the overachieving geek that I am, I got there an hour early to walk through the exhibit, to recall as much as possible of what I have read and heard about this remarkable display, and make mental notes on the details I wanted to be sure to point out to my knowledge-starved neophytes. As I perused the gallery during that preparatory hour, I couldn’t help but point out evidence of Wyeth’s genius to the museum-goers who hadn’t had the good fortune to sign up for the tour. They shared some of their acute observations with me. I listened in on private conversations. I asked questions of the patrons who spoke of their own painting experiences. To one woman I remarked, “I can have all the passion in the world for art, but my experience of it is totally different from yours because you know what it is to paint. You can appreciate Wyeth’s genius in a way I never will.” I listened to one elderly woman who reflected on having used only pastels on masonite, but never tempera. She took notes as she walked, and I wished I could see not only what she had written on that paper but also some of the works she has produced in her lifetime. I was glad to have the opportunity to share my increasing love for art and for that museum with those hearty souls who were taking advantage of a Sunday afternoon’s relatively empty galleries. At 4:00, I went back to the lobby of the museum, having freshened my mouth with several of those little Listerine breath strips I’m addicted to, and waited for my tour group to arrive. I waited. And waited. And waited. They never showed up. Deep sigh. Dropped shoulders. Not willing to keep my light hidden under a bushel basket, I returned to the galleries and offered myself as a willing tour guide and source of relevant minutiae in relation to the show. I sidled in between curious gazers and relayed tidbits of information for which they all expressed gratitude. I overheard parents explaining to their mortified children why it was okay for Helga to be unclothed in that public setting. I heard one elderly gentleman announce to any and all who would listen that he wondered if the nude pieces were done in winter or summer, but he guessed it was warm because he saw no evidence of goosebumps on Helga. We all laughed politely. But the majority of my time wandering through those quietly appointed and superbly curated galleries was spent gazing at Helga. Who was this quietly radiant, self-assured, and unforgettable woman? What was she thinking as she sat there, laid there, walked there in the presence of this legend of American art? I thought about her ability to maintain her dignity even after hours, days, months, and years of being undressed in front of Wyeth. Would I ever feel so safe and relaxed in the presence of such a talented artist or anyone else? What was it about her that wanted and needed to be seen, portrayed, and remembered for all eternity? Do I have that same hunger for posterity? I suppose so; hence, my writing. In all but one work, Helga is alone. The only exception is one image of her with a dog. In all but one work, she looks away from Wyeth, and by extension, from the viewer. The only exception is a palpably disquieting piece called, “Nudes.” In it, she gazes, unexpressive, out of the plane of the drawing and meets the gaze of the passerby. I wondered how it was possible that she was naked, but I was the one who felt exposed. In all the other paintings I was the one who was watching her, but in that instant, she was watching me. I didn’t like the sensation. When do I feel watched, exposed, and vulnerable? As I meandered back through the exhibit, I experienced a comfortable solitude; I was lost in my thoughts, in my wondering about her. However, I never felt lonely, and evidently neither did she. She exuded strength, determination, self-containment that I have only rarely observed in my lifetime. The fourteen years devoted to this collaboration were a well-guarded secret; only two other people knew of their work: her husband and his sister. Her husband agreed to the modeling sessions with the understanding that she would never pose nude. Within the first year, she had done just that. What must it have been like to maintain that secret for fourteen years? How often did Wyeth and Testorf go home after their sessions knowing how upset, angry, and betrayed their spouses would feel if they knew what was going on? Even though what they were doing wasn’t wrong in itself, it was certainly a dangerous secret they were keeping. What are my dangerous secrets? I imagine that her husband often asked how the sessions were going. She most likely replied that all was going well. Wyeth’s habit has always been to keep his work life separate from his home life. He worked with many models through the years, and the secrecy of his endeavors was not unusual for him. I suppose they each had to know the truth would come out at some point. As I stood there and stared at “Refuge,” the final piece in the series, I thought about what historians say happened once their secret was made public. Where would they find refuge then? Wyeth’s wife was understandably furious about both the secrecy and the nudity. Helga’s intensely private husband kept his emotions to himself. Helga suffered something of a nervous breakdown. And Wyeth is reported to have said something like: “All of this furor is exactly why I kept it a secret.” Yet no one can deny that the secrets, the silence, and the lies that Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf maintained for those fourteen years have impacted American art in ways neither of them could have imagined at the time. As a testament to the power of forgiveness and true friendship, both Helga and Andrew’s marriages remain intact. She continues to work with Andrew in his art studio mixing tempera for him and doing some painting and poetry writing of her own. I am enormously grateful for their willingness to risk so much in order to bring us so much beauty. As I walked to from the museum to my car, I wondered about the true nature of the relationship between Wyeth and Testorf. Were they lovers as the title of one of the pieces suggests? Does it matter? I wondered about the secrets and silences of my fellow museum goers and what the Helga Pictures made them think about in relation to their own lives. I wondered what the impact of lies, secrets, and silence has had on my life and will have on my legacy. And I felt genuine pity for the inconsiderate group of no-shows who missed out on the tour of a lifetime. Too bad for them!

No comments: