Magical Realism




Last Sunday morning I was pretending to write something of terrible importance here while furtively checking my e-mail. I drank my tea, picked out my password with two fingers of my right hand, and considered going to church. Then I found out about the Andrew Wyeth tribute at the Brandywine River Art Museum. ooooooh…

Not that the Brandywine River Museum normally highlights artists who aren’t Wyeths. This was something special though. Christina’s World was on loan for the weekend from the Museum of Modern Art. It rarely leaves New York City. This is not one of my favorite paintings honestly, but the chance to see such an icon of American art up close and personal in a setting as intimate as the Brandywine made me more than a little excited. I vibrated with it. And, of course, it’s Andrew Wyeth. I am a self-confessed Wyeth-ite. I know. What could be more obvious, right? A serious artist would eschew such rustic realism. This is not the stuff of great art. It’s too provincial. Too acceptable to the masses. But I do consider myself a serious artist and I love Wyeth’s work. It’s realistic, yes. There’s more to it than that though. There’s an element of mystery often that verges on mysticism. Something other-worldly and slightly surreal. Magic. And in Wyeth’s paintings there’s always a story unfolding. You have to look quietly, to listen with your eyes. Someone’s just left the room, there’s a breath taken, a pause…

“It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment.”

That’s the quote that was next to his Snow Hill. Again, not a favorite of mine but I like the quote. I came across another quote paired with a painting and searched the room for someone with a pen. The man I spotted making notes of his own handed me his pen as if he had some choice in the matter. It was cute. He even tried a little small talk. He’s never been to a gallery with me.

“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Although I don’t really prefer winter (At all! It’s cold!) to any other season, I read that and thought: Yes. Exactly. And then I remembered I’d drug four children and a husband along. Not hearing them made me nervous. But there they all were, admiring Christina’s World from a respectable distance, held back by stanchions and rope. The sight made me smile. My nine year-old and I had had a scholarly discussion of that very painting on the drive to the museum. There’s a print of it hanging in the art room at school and so she knew all about it. “Are you going to buy it, Mom?” she had asked. And there she was, reveling in the fact that she was standing within two feet of it. She could tell her teacher and say “My mom decided not to buy it”. She asked a lot of questions. This child has a gift for interrogation. She’s verbally interactive. Her mother frequently is not. But she’d hit my weak spot. I could have gabbed about texture techniques and negative space till they died of boredom. Catching my son’s eye I knew they were close to it. But they were good and as we walked he admired the realism of the water and assorted livestock. The nine year-old kept up the barrage of questions. “Who’s that? What happened to her? Is she naked? How did he get those pumpkins stacked like that? Is that dog asleep? It looks like he used white paint. I thought you said it wasn’t cool to use white paint in watercolor. Is this a watercolor? What’s egg tempera? It looks like white paint…”


We made our way through, wondering at an elderly man that painted motorcycles at stop lights and at the mastery of his last painting – aptly titled Goodbye. Then we visited his father, NC Wyeth. Left the white on white of the special exhibit gallery, filled with the seeming lightness of watercolor and egg tempera, and entered the dark, barnlike gallery of huge, heavy oils depicting shipwrecks and swordfights. My son stepped in and his eyes grew big. “Wow!” Scenes from Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Last of the Mohicans, and more surrounded us, including my personal favorite, RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The pixie shouted “Is that guy dead?” and patted The Siege of the Round-House, a huge painting of a scene from Kidnapped. All five fingers and a palm. She leaned. Hard. The canvas sagged inward. I was twenty feet away and paralyzed by horror and – I’ll admit – awe. This child of mine has touched an NC Wyeth painting. Completely and totally touched it. Loved it without reservation, left her imprint upon it and made it her own. It’s a sight I hope I never forget. This is the way she lives. Fully. When I say to friends that I fear for the world for her sake, this is what I mean. There’s no moderation in her. She consumes life and everyone in it whole and all I can do is watch in horror and awe. This is the way NC Wyeth lived; The way Andrew Wyeth was raised. Beneath those fine fairy features she is brilliant, wild, genius, and I have to remember to rejoice, if tremblingly, in it.