Sunday, November 08, 2009

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #6: The Wyeths: Three Generations

Andrew Wyeth, Antler Crown (1983). Image found here.

I like Andrew Wyeth's work. Really. I also knew that his father, N. C. Wyeth, was a prominent illustrator during the first half of the 20th century, and I knew that Jaime, Andrew's son, is a well-regarded artist in his own right. So a few weeks ago, when Scruffy and I had wandered more than usual and found ourselves at the Wichita Art Museum gazing at a large outdoor banner announcing this exhibit, I was very excited to see it and grew impatient that my Saturdays (free admission days) would not see fit to clear for me. Yesterday, though, the scheduling clouds parted, and off I went.

I was underwhelmed. I wasn't expecting to see Christina's World yesterday; even so, given the WAM's recent string of intriguing travelling exhibits, I had hopes of seeing a solid collection of paintings. And, well, they were, but in a finally unengaging way. For the most part, these aren't famous paintings, but paintings by famous artists.

N. C. Wyeth is best known for his work as an illustrator, and so it makes sense that the bulk of his work in the show would be examples of his illustrations. But in looking at them, I was reminded yet again that illustrations are rarely intended to stand alone but are meant to, um, illustrate: they are visualizations of a scene from a text. (Though, that said, his illustrations for Treasure Island, none of which are in this exhibit (but here's an example, originally found here), are justly celebrated on their own terms.) The N. C. Wyeth illustrations on display here are, well, a bit dull--even one depicting two medieval knights engaged in a fight with broadswords. But there were some paintings by him that were more interesting to see--in particular, Eight Bells--because they establish an aesthetic connection between father and son and grandson.

As for the Andrew Wyeths in the exhibition, the one painting I know I had seen before is Antler Crown, seen above, though I don't recall where. The first thing I thought when I saw it yesterday was, "Wow: Georgia O'Keeffe visits New England" (which I meant in a complimentary way). There were a couple of others I very much liked but could not find online images for: The Forge (1984), a rural watercolor winter scene depicting some outbuildings in which Wyeth has let the bare white of the paper stand for the snow, thus lending a painterly, almost abstract quality to his rendering of trees and grasses in the painting's foreground; and Bird House (1997), which shows a flock of birds flying around a barn and some sheds and, dominating the left side of the painting, another bird flying into the space of the painting's extreme foreground, its wings up, its beak open, its claws extended in front of it. I admit to liking my Wyeths with a bit of strangeness and/or menace in them, so these three appealed to me to the point that I'd go back to the show again to see them in particular. The others, though, tended toward skillful but finally less-interesting paintings of the sort Robert Hughes sniffs at.

Yesterday, I was least moved by Jamie Wyeth's paintings; this morning, though, I find myself liking a couple of them more. Warm Halloween, the painting you see here, is in the show, and it manages a jokey-but-creepy vibe that I like, and The Church has a starkness that's appealing to me as well. But I much prefer the other paintings of his that I've seen online while looking for images of those in the show. In them he is clearly his father's son, but he shows himself to have a broader range that the show to its credit tries to convey, but via (in my opinion) pretty dull paintings.

[Aside: All these paintings are from the collection of the Bank of America. Perhaps its ho-hum quality, as I noted here, is due in part to corporate collections' tendency not to offend current/future clients' sensibilities. Snark alert: Would that the Bank of America were more adventurous in their art-buying and less so in their investment practices.]

The show did contain one pleasant surprise: A couple of paintings by Henriette Wyeth, Andrew's older sister, whom I'd not heard of before. Her subjects tend to be portraits and still lifes; some examples (none from the show, alas) are here. They have an formal, elegant calmness to them that I very much like and, ironically (in view of what I'd been saying above), I wish there had been more of in the show.

As you can tell, then, the above hasn't exactly been a ringing endorsement of this exhibition. But the show, in addition to being a brief, substantial augmentation of the WAM's permanent collection's three Wyeth paintings (two by Andrew, one by N. C.), also serves as a good introduction to the work of the most important multigenerational family of American artists since the Peales (Charles Wilson and his sons, Raphaelle and Rembrandt) of the 18th and 19th centuries.

(A friendlier review of this same show is here.)


Gwynne said...

I'm curious if you saw the exhibit a few (maybe it's been "many" by now) years ago at the Nelson in Kansas City. I was overwhelmed by that show and came away a big fan of Andrew Wyeth's work (I don't recall them showing the father or son's works then).

R. Sherman said...

I've been to a few exhibitions where it seemed the curators had no clue as to a theme tying the works together. I was always left with the feeling of having read novel's plot synopsis without any further explication. Disappointing, really.