Andrew Wyeth is a bit of an odd duck in the context of modern painters. He did not live in a big city, and he did not indulge in the trends that obsess many artists. He went his own way, and in doing so, he developed his own style where matted and soft colors match the somber yet peaceful themes that he depicted. And these were themes that are unique to the setting in which he chose to live.
His painting “That Gentleman” fits into this mold.
The figure is alone and looks away from the viewer in semi-darkness. You cannot tell his mood though with his legs crossed, he appears to be relaxed. You can just see that he is not young. He seems to be reflecting on his experiences. Or is that just his nature?
This description of the painting resonates with me
The portrait depicts Tom Clark, who was Wyeth’s neighbor in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It is said Wyeth greatly admired Clark, once saying of him, “his voice is gentle, his wit keen, and his wisdom enormous. He is not a character, but a very dignified gentleman who might otherwise have gone unrecorded.”
Wyeth was bearing witness to something in the real world that we would have otherwise missed. The dignity of a person unadorned. You might call this anti-Hollywood. By that, I mean it tells a story that a Hollywood screen writer would not be able to sell to a producer. Nor would it run as a “smash hit” because of its special effects, super heroes, or sexuality. You might notice that Mr. Clark is looking at a blank wall, not a TV. Nor are there any pictures or other decorative objects in sight.
You also might compare this view — which is not intended to be beautiful in a conventional way — with another unsentimental portrait. This one by Lucian Freud
It is a self-portrait. Once again, the colors are muted. The atmosphere is reflective and realistic. But in this setting, Freud attempts to show us more of the subject. Wyeth is quite distant. Freud is up close, showing you the warts and all. You look directly into the face of the subject., though he is not looking directly back at you. As you look at the portrait, you cannot help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the expression and the shadowing on the face. Is Freud in pain? Yes or no, you do not get the sense of relaxed, civilized self-assurance. And, I would argue, there is less dignity here. More a need to bear witness to the darker side of the self.
While these two works are different, in both cases, you feel the artists’ plea to take reality as it is, unadorned and without artifice. A plea for honesty? And I think this desire to strip away artifice fits into a 20th century artistic theme that runs counter to mainstream entertainments. What is wrong with those entertainments? They are chock full of fantasy and self-aggrandizement and less scrupulous about depictions of reality. Wyeth and Freud rebel from that lack of honesty. Again, my shorthand phrase to describe this is “anti-Hollywood.
You might contrast that ant-Hollywood plea with something like this
Yes, Gainsborough. Or this
Their pre-modern aesthetic speaks of a congruence between the desire for the good life and its pleasures with the artifices that we use to enhance those pleasures. Artifice is a positive. And the pursuit of honesty? Well, one was honest enough, I suppose.
Wyeth and Freud strip their works of artifice. They intend to go to the root of things. Wyeth, perhaps, from the sense that it is somehow better. Freud, perhaps, because it appears to him to be unavoidable. And what do we find there? Dirt, for sure. Do we also find a certain solace? As I mentioned, certainly Gainsborough and Fragonard attempted to find solace in the artifices that they portrayed. But can we also find solace when artifice is stripped away? I leave that to you to decide for yourself. I would suggest that Wyeth and Freud also would answer “that is up to you.”
As you think about that, consider this self-portrait by Andy Warhol
There is certainly artifice here. For example, Warhol is wearing one of his wigs. And the head is detached – seemingly floating in the dark. But it is an absurd sort of artifice that makes the subject look somewhat horrifying. And he is staring directly at you with eyes that are without emotion. If not dead, certainly deadened. In contrast to Wyeth and Freud, Warhol seems to be saying that one is trapped on the surface of things. There is no inside. There is no solace. Just a desire for attention. A comment on modern artifice? Anti-Hollywood by parodying Hollywood? You can decide for yourself.
Given the problem with artifice, perhaps the more radical aesthetic approach is to give up on depicting reality at all. After all, any and all depictions of the real world are artificial. So why not just play with the effects of color and texture themselves. Perhaps that is more honest and rewarding.
And you get Pollack and many others.
Alternatively, we celebrate a playful approaches to artifice. Aesthetic poses that flaunt their artificiality. That make a joke of reality., The artist as hero claims that the subjective poses that he or she depicts transcend the need to depict the real as it is.
And you get Picasso.
Or going further, reality may be depicted in dreamscapes — where the artifice is a natural feature of the subconscious, and perhaps therefore, honest enough. A phrase that I used before.
Finally, we should be aware that the desire to strip away artifice is nothing new. Consider the cover illustration for the book “Zen Flesh Zen Bones”
The zen monk is not adorned. Nor is he presented as higher than or greater than anything else. His pose is quizzical. He seems aware that we all share the fate of being on a journey of self-exploration. There is sufficient dignity in that. One needs nothing more to go forward. To get on with it, so to speak. It is a zen aesthetic.
The greatest artists understood quite well that we yearn to see what lies beneath the pose. I leave you with this well know image that offers this sort of peek “inside”. The depth one finds in the eyes, slightly averted, is riveting in contrast to the redness on the tip of the nose and slight puffiness of the cheeks. The artifices of life seem to have taken their toll on the older Rembrandt.
And yet, Rembrandt still is looking. For what? We cannot know. But just for fun, you might contrast these eyes with the eyes you find in the Freud and Warhol self-portraits, the Picasso lady, and those of the zen monk. These are so much deeper and expressive. They bear witness to the type of artist that Rembrandt was.
And remember that Wyeth does not even let us see Mr. Clark’s eyes? That speaks volumes about Wyeth’s aesthetic. He was obsessed with the self (enough to bear witness to Mr. Clark’s existence) but he had a minimalist view of the importance of the self (keeping us at a distance from Mr. Clark). The self is interesting in context only.
In that sense, one might argue that Wyeth was not as far away from Warhol as one might think. Both minimized the depiction of the internal self. But they differ in a crucial respect. Wyeth brings out an unmistakable dignity in that pose — the acceptance of a relatively minor role in the broader scheme of things. Warhol is more attuned to finding and depicting celebrity,. He is obsessed with the maximal efforts to get attention and keep it for as long as possible. Dignity? Well, for Warhol, that is, as we say, “road kill” Dignity seems to take a back seat as well with Freud, Picasso, and the moderns in general.
That brings me back to Rembrandt one last time. Rembrandt knew celebrity as a young man. He lived the life of a celebrity. It all came crashing down later on. This story gives Rembrandt’s later self- portraits a modern sense. If modernism is about the aesthetics of devaluing artifice, Rembrandt’s later self portraits depict that devaluation rather well. And he achieves it in a humanistic way — something I find sorely missing these days.
A Quick follow — For many years, I have been interested in the “decadent” movement in the arts that took root towards the end of the 19th century in England and France. Oscar Wilde was a proponent, and he asserted that truth was less important than beauty. In other words, artifice is good if it serves the cause of beauty. Hence, Wilde’s plays are entertaining, but not intended to make any statements about reality. As I think about it, this is actually a rather old idea — that artifice is needed to enhance the pleasures of life. It is not so far from Fragonard! Sadly, the events and thinking in the 20th century took things in a different direction, and I have attempted to trace a thread of this above. Did it have to go this way? No. But the reality is that it did.