Feature

Exhibit of the week: Wyeth Vertigo

A penchant for dark, disorienting imagery must run in the family.

Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt.Through Oct. 31

A penchant for dark, disorienting imagery must run in the family, said Tom Slayton in VPR.net. While the works of N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945), his son Andrew (1917–2009), and grandson Jamie (born in 1946) all feature a realistic, pastoral style, look closer and you’ll also see an “air of ominous disharmony” that’s emphasized by warped or unusually oblique perspectives. The natural world is seldom serene in these paintings: Vultures hover, a crow’s body lies in a barren field, and waves toss an empty fisherman’s boat. When people appear, they’re often struggling against forces greater than themselves. “These images tell us—sometimes subtly, sometimes not—that the world is out of joint.”

That common thread “gives us a chance to reflect on the very different techniques of all three artists,” said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. N.C. Wyeth’s “wonderful way with vivid light and color” comes through in paintings such as 1927’s Lobsterman Hauling Trap, which views the subject from a high cliff and contains surprising avant-garde touches in its “soft, cubist faceting of forms.” Andrew, by contrast, used “dirt-dry tempera” to infuse his work with a powerful bleakness, while Jamie prefers “setting cropped close-ups—a ram’s head, carved pumpkins—against dramatically receding, surreally anomalous backgrounds.” But the work of all three Wyeths displays “a heightened sensitivity to danger,” both in the subjects the artists chose to portray and in their precarious vantage points. The Wyeths, who all spent significant periods of their lives near Maine’s coast, knew well that making a living from the land and sea offered locals an uncertain existence at best. Each artist took pains to be “not just a picture-maker, but a storyteller.”

The Wyeths deserve to be celebrated for their virtuosity alone, said James Gardner in The Magazine Antiques. The exhibition’s curators have unnecessarily dabbled in historical revisionism, arguing, for instance, that the family’s preoccupation with bird’s-eye perspectives is somehow a reflection on the foreboding, post-Hiroshima awareness that death could be suddenly delivered from above. But “one must question whether it is necessary or desirable or even accurate” to turn artists who deliberately bucked many of the trends of 20th-century art into members of a vanguard. In Andrew Wyeth’s Soaring (1950), “an extremely accomplished painting and perhaps the best in the exhibition,” the stamp of the modern world is nearly completely absent. Though a tiny farmhouse stands in the foreground, our focus is squarely drawn to the massive raptors circling high above the hills. Here, Andrew “does not merely adopt a ‘bird’s-eye view,’ he seems shamanistically to become one with the birds.” Work like this is not merely historically timely; it is timeless.

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