Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christina's World & Our World

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948 MoMA, New York. 
Christina's World isn't just her world, it's our world, too, and the image of the frail woman abandoned in the field is the US at the end of World War II. Christina's World  by American painter Andrew Wyeth is a perfect example of wondering through an art museum and coming upon a painting you know is famous, but you don't know why it is famous. I've heard several things including that the girl in the painting, Christina, was schizophrenic. That just happens to not be true, but the point is, if we were wondering around a museum, and saw this work, we would want to interact with it, we would want to understand what the painting is showing us, because deep down inside, we know it's too strange to not be saying something. Wyeth completed this work in 1948 and seems to be illustrating for us what the United States was like in 1948; the problem is, the economy was strong, we had just won World War II, there was a baby boom and American living standards was starting on an all-time high; how can this frail woman in the middle of a barren field tell us about America in 1948?
To enlarge, just click on the image. You may also save the image to your computer by right-clicking and then opening it in your picture viewer and zooming in on various parts of the painting.
What strikes you first because it's most odd, is the vastness of this field and why on earth this woman, sitting in this barren field, is there. When viewing art, we tend to be drawn towards human figures, whether portraits or human shapes within larger works, because (ever since we were infants) we recognize the human form first, we recognize "our self" in the art and that's what we look for. So the seemingly vulnerable position of this woman, alone, in this barren field, and not knowing what she's doing there or if there is anyone there to help her, is dramatic and even potentially tragic because you begin to realize this woman needs help, but help doesn't seem to be anywhere nearby. It is possible, however, that if we did not know anything about the painting, we could deduce that we, the viewer, are Christina looking at this woman on the ground, and the possibility of helping her is ours: what do we feel as we look at her? Do we want to help her or are we repulsed by her helplessness?
Please note the muted color palette of the painting; there are no bright colors or primary colors used anywhere in the image; the sky is gray rather than blue, and the grass is a withered brown instead of green and lush. The house is gray and dark rather than warm and inviting and Christina's dress is dull and old, rather then new and clean.
Since we can't understand what is happening to this woman, let's just start with details.
She's bone thin.
Since this is 1948, and World War II ended in 1945, it's very possible that Wyeth had seen images of victims from concentration camps, those who had lost all their muscles in the upper arms and legs. Pink is the color of femininity, but it's a very faded pink. This could refer to role reversals post WWII. She's wearing shoes but she's not wearing socks which could be an indication about her will (feet symbolize the will as arms symbolize strength). Her left hand, poised towards the house and the barn, is in a clutching position, clutching the barren earth, almost as if she's pulling herself forward, crawling. What is most revelatory about the woman for me, is her hair: hair is symbolic of thoughts, and if you look closely at her hair, it's coming undone and flying loose. For those who remember Grant Wood's American Gothic, there is a small snippet of the woman's hair that has come undone from her bun (please see American Gothic American Theology: Grant Wood).
The woman's hair, in Christina's World, is really undone, and that could potentially symbolize schizophrenia or other mental illness, but it does at least convey to us that she is not stable in her thoughts. Why? Well, given how big the field is, and that there is no crop planted in this field, there is a lack of "fruitfulness" in her life. If this woman could be taken to symbolize America in 1948--and I believe it does, or it is at least a viable reading of it--this is a strange commentary that Wyeth is making because in 1948, the United States was doing pretty well: we had become a superpower but this woman is far from symbolizing that. It's not just that the field is barren, but unkept and full of weeds. The barn in the distance, upon close examination, has birds flying around it; that could possibly mean nothing, but it seems to me, that those birds have probably made their nests in the barn and that's why there are so many of them there and that means the barn is empty and not in use; there is no produce from the fields being kept in there. 
If she could only get to the house she would be safe; but would she?
Upon close examination, there appears to be damage to the roof just below both chimneys, and a ladder propped up against the front of the house, but no one there using it. Wood appears to be pulling away from the side of the house and if the windows aren't boarded up, they are closed up, which is odd because this is summer, before widespread use of air conditioning, so normally the windows would be open to let in a breeze, but these windows are closed, suggesting that the house is abandoned. There appears to be a piece of clothing on the laundry line, but it's undecidable what apparel it is, which could mean it's only something that blew there by the wind and got caught on the line, which seems more likely given the overall abandoned feel of the scene.
There are several poles, as if a fence, but there is no barbed wire or chicken wire, which again, suggests that the place at least is not productive, and probably as abandoned as the plowing machine to the left of the house. Lastly, there are tracks leading up to the house, like wagon wheel ruts, but the rut closest to the woman doesn't extend back as far (towards the right side of the painting) as the right sided rut, so the house also appears to be inaccessible.
So how did this woman get here?
Another way to put the question is, How did the United States get where it was in 1948?
If winning the war so they could get home was what kept American soldiers going in both Europe and the Pacific, they might have been disappointed when they returned. The The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe started in April of 1948, but Wyeth seems to be saying that America needs rebuilding, too. Houses symbolize the soul, so when there is an abandoned house, there is an abandoned soul, or a soul in a state of depression. The woman before us, on the ground, seems to be also abandoned, a shell of a person like the shelter in the distance is a shell of a house, and Wyeth seems to be saying that the economic recovery of WWII was only an illusion, the power of the United States on the world stage was only an illusion, and the incredible productivity of the factories across the country was only an illusion; something was wrong with America, and while he maybe couldn't put his finger on it, he knew it had to do something with the way we were thinking (the woman's hair) and the abandoning of our soul (the deserted house), perhaps in favor of the material wealth many Americans began enjoying while neglecting a more soul-searching approach to life after the second World War.
The United States, in some way, is identifying with the victims of the concentration camps (the woman's thinness) because we had lost all our strength, which is odd, because we usually think of how strong we were coming out of World War II, but while we pulled together for the common cause of the war during the war, things changed after the war, and sacrifices that were willingly made had unforeseen consequences.
The mushroom cloud from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.  Culture, film and art critics have never made the case for it, but the consequences of the atomic age were the main driving force of art at the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s.
In research terms, Christina is Christina Olson, a neighbor of Andrew Wyeth's who had polio, a disease that crippled and killed thousands (it was contracted by drinking water that had human fecal matter in it; during the 1930s and 1940s, sanitation wasn't a top priority in the United States so the disease spread quickly). The importance of Christina having polio, and Wyeth highlighting that in 1948, is because President Franklin D. Roosevelt was wheelchair bound as a result of his polio; Christina's World, then, takes us back to the time when polio effected the highest and the lowest in the United States, the time before World War II, and makes the point that the U.S. hadn't come so far as we were imagining in 1948.
One of only two known photos of FDR in a wheelchair.
Wyeth had seen Christina from a window one day, crawling towards her home (while Christina was the inspiration for the painting, his wife was the model for the torso of the woman).  Knowing where Wyeth was when he saw Christina crawling towards her home is interesting because, if you look at the painting, that's not where we the viewer are, up in a house window, looking out; we are right behind her, on her level, in a position to help her, if we chose.
We are as much a part of Christina's world as she is of ours.
The details about Christina and her illness, where Wyeth was when he saw her, are not items we would have accessible to us, to aid us in engaging with the piece, if we saw it in a museum, and artists know that as they are painting. They know that their task is to communicate as much as possible with as little as possible, and as directly as possible with any viewer who sees the work, so it's a huge task that artists such as Wyeth excel at because, even without the research information, we can still understand a meaningful narrative just by taking time to examine the details.
This is the first in a series of post WWII art that I would like to examine (I will still be doing currently released films, and in between doing post WWII art). I will be examining the film noir genre as well as those campy sci-fi films of the 1950s with giant creatures roaming all over the place and why they are some of the most important films that America has ever made.