Friday, October 13, 2006

Seeing Things In Christina’s World

Andrew Wyeth painted “Christina’s World
in Nineteen-Forty-Eight. One year later
it was purchased by New York’s Museum
of Contemporary Art. The great fuss,
then, over the painting resulted in
the real-life model, Christina Olson,
being called the most famous model in
the world of modern American art.

I was born ten years later. Growing up,
the only artists people around me
talked about were Peter Max and sometimes
Andy Warhol, or Frank Frazetta and
sometimes LeRoy Neiman. When I first saw
Christina’s World” there was no preceding
fuss, there was no explanatory text.
My response was only to the image.

God, I thought, what a profoundly modern,
profoundly American, profoundly
New England restatement of the classic
Eternal Feminine. A young woman
sprawled in a bountiful field, her hips thrust
against the earth, her back turned haughtily
to the artist and viewer and her gaze
forward, at her farm, her house, at her world.

Much later I learned how profoundly wrong
I was. Looking at Christina’s thin arms,
thin legs, I was growing up in a time
when many girls thought Twiggy was groovy
and many women were developing
the look Wolfe would soon call social x-rays.

But Christina wasn’t a hippie and
she certainly wasn’t a socialite.

Christina Olson suffered polio
as a child. She lost the use of her legs.
As an adult if Christina wanted
to go outside when people were busy
she would drag herself out of the house and
into the surrounding blueberry field.

Wyeth often painted in a small room
upstairs at Christina’s house. He would watch
her drag herself out to the field, then back.
Eventually Wyeth painted her.

Growing up, a kid, I saw the painting
as bright, a celebration of Woman.

Older, an adult, I saw it a dirge,
a lament of Christina’s affliction,
and the painting’s key was the perspective,
the distance cue of the great space between
Christina and the high, far horizon.

Older still, confused in my adulthood,
I’ve wondered sometimes if my second guess
might be as profoundly wrong as my first.


One night a woman called at three a.m.
to tell me she was painting my portrait.
It wasn’t really my portrait, she said.
It was a self-portrait of herself but
she said after knowing me for two years
she felt so shaped by me that by painting
herself she was painting me. And, she said,
it wasn’t really a portrait of her,
it was actually a painting of
a donut. She said after knowing me
for two years she’d come to think of herself
as something like a frosted donut, and
it pissed her off that thinking of herself
as a frosted donut just made her smile
instead of making her angry. She said
she’d bought a frosted donut that evening
and now was staying up all night painting.
She said she was working through her feelings
toward me and herself and our dating by
making a frosted donut oil painting.


Having looked at a donut that was me,
or a woman who knew me, I’m not sure
what I see looking at “Christina’s World.”

Christina’s in a field. Does it matter
if I know it’s a field of blueberries?
Christina’s in a field. Does it matter
if I know she’s dragging herself through it?

I don’t know what I see. For all I know
I might be seeing Wyeth’s self-portrait
as he sees himself, shaped by Christina
and the house in the field of blueberries.

I don’t know what I see. That’s my third guess.

My third guess is there are things in this world
that are unknowable. Things we can’t know.

That doesn’t mean that we cannot see them.

I think looking into “Christina’s World
I see things unknowable in this world.

There are things in this world we cannot know.

That doesn’t mean that we cannot see them.
Or that we cannot think they’re beautiful.
Or that we cannot love them. That’s my guess—
That art is about unknowable things.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Christina’s World at Wikipedia

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