‘On the ridge where great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk however and only there, lays the freedom of Art’. Albert Camus
There are artworks that you would look at it and feel unsettled; you would look at it and wonder about its meaning, and something in you would be moved, without you knowing why.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Christina’s World’, 1948, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And this was exactly how I felt, while I was first introduced to the thrilling art of American realist painter, Andrew Wyeth. It was the discussion that I had with the talented poet living in Maine, US about the iconic painting called ‘Christina’s World’ (MET), that lead me to the exceptional collection by the same author, known as ‘The Helga Pictures’.
The series of paintings that I discovered few months ago caused certain restlessness in my mind – a feeling that kept me awake at night. While I was looking at the artworks again this week – there was a song by Matt Simon on the radio, that made me grasp the obvious:
‘There’s a place I go to
Where no one knows me
It’s not lonely
It’s a necessary thing’
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Her Room’, 1982
Andrew Wyeth, ‘The Wind From The Sea’, 1947
Now, let’s think of a place that puts everything else aside, a place that once found, shall never be abandoned. A place that we choose to stay in, as it feels like the only place on earth that where we could truly be ourselves.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Day Dream’, 1980
I think you’ve might already have noticed that Whyeth’s art has the ability to bring one to that kind of place. ‘Helga Pictures’ are the provocative bridge leading to the exclusive world created and reserved just for two. There is an American poet, Red Shuttleworth, that in his poem ‘Happy Birthday Andrew Wyeth’ beautifully described the ‘electricity’ and highest intimacy between the artist and his blonde muse:
‘Borrowed attic, autumnal field: Helga comes
thirsty… drinks plain iced tea from your cup.
You speak of distant stars or newspaper
delivery boys… only Helga on the bed knows,
turning over and over, droplets of sweat
dampening an off-white Montgomery Wards
cotton sheet. Her secret. Your secret.’
You might be wondering now why are those paintings so intoxicating, misterious and moving? The truth is that only looking deeply into the relationship of the painter could explain all that remains invisible at first glance.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Self Portrait’, 1949
While gathering information about Wyeth, I was especially interested in revealing the artists ‘secret weapon’ that pierces the onlooker heart with an ache of longing and recognition.
The beauty of Helga portraits lies in the harmony and exceptional trust that was there between the artist and his muse. Wyeth celebrated quietly being in Helga’s presence, watching her breathe, sit, sleep, exist. The ‘dazzling Prussian girl’, as the painter used to call his muse, regularly ‘barricaded herself’ in the secondary reality that was accessible only for her and the inspired artist. Place that felt like asylum and ‘run away’ from all that’s ordinary, usual and deprived of magic.
Astonishingly enough, the artist has never really intended to show his works publicly. This is what he confirmed during the only interview ‘on Helga Matter’ that he has ever had:
‘My intention was to keep ‘em hidden away until I died’, he says, ‘Then they could be revealed’.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Braids’, 1979
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Crown Of Flowers’, 1974
In fact, over the span of 15 Wyeth created 240 artworks keeping it all secret and away from the public eye. As I learned from a little book written by Thomas Hoving, a former director of Metropolitan Museum of Art – the only person who has ever interviewed the artist on his controversial ‘artistic process’, Wyeth, believed that he could never have finished ‘The Helga Pictures’ without the public peering over his shoulder. Therefore, he did not reveal their existence to anyone, not even his wife, until the series was completed.
In my opinion Andrew Wyeth was a kind of artist who created either while in love, or did not create all. There was no other force on earth that could make him paint a masterpiece without having the heart engaged in the process. Similarly to Picasso – Wyeth couldn’t run away from the influence of Eros on his life.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Night Shadow’, 1979
‘Wild blonde hair, most often in pigtails,
no silly grins, her full breasts, farm-fit body
summer-moist… she lets you,
position her for the immortality
of sugar-loaded light.’
As the artist he explained during the interview with Hoving:
‘I knew right away that I wanted this relationship- if it worked- to be a secret. Because I didn’t want anyone to know that I have fallen deeply in love. (…) ‘The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models. I don’t mean a sexual love, I mean real love. Many artists tell me they don’t even recall the names of their models. I have to fall in love with mine – hell, I do much the same with tree or a dog. I have to become enamored. Smitten. That’s what happened when I saw Helga walking up the Kuerner’s lane. She was this amazing, crushing blonde.’
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Seabed’, 1980
Helga, on the other hand, turned out to be the this persistent, restless and most patient model that any artist could dream of. She understood the importance of her role, was discreet, deeply engaged with her whole being in the process of creation.
When I thought about the circumstances in which the exceptional artworks were painted- I can almost see how Andrew kissed Helga when she entered his house in the evenings. How they sat down, how everything fell into place. I can almost hear Andrew’s words before getting down to work on their first painting, how he pressed his lips together on a smile, feeling the happiness and excitement rise within him, stronger than the fear.
With every new painting – the affection was growing – the feeling was deeper.
‘I don’t know who I am anymore, except with you’ – must have been Andrews words while talking to Helga, or ‘To love is to be alive. In death there is none of this.’
No doubt, there was obsession and deep need to be loved in return between the two lost souls. There was also sadness and loneliness by every ‘goodbye’ that Andrew recalled during the interview – there was this ‘catching and releasing’ that went on till the end of Wyeth’s life.
When the artist wife was asked what she thought of the relationship of her husband with the model, she replied, “All I see is love.”
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Lovers’, 1981
There was also this rare, unique ‘mutual understanding’ that only real soulmates could achieve, something that made it all work:
‘If I’d see a good pose, something that enthralled me, I’d say “Stay there.”. And she would- for hours.(…) ‘I deliberately did Helga in all times of the year and weather. Outdoors and indoors. Helga says we lived outdoors – she joked that it was like living with Robin Hood’.
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Refugee’, 1985
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Cape Coat’, 1982
According to the artist – Helga Testorf was the only viewer and curator of Wyeths paintings for 15 years, before ‘the word got out and all hell broke loose.’
I found it truly fascinating to get an insight into the artist’s explanation how he felt about the entire collection:
‘Hey, they weren’t paintings to me, but attempts to discover something about this lady. They were a complex, mental process. The heart of Helga series was that I was trying to unlock my emotions in capturing her essence, in getting her humanity down onto a panel or two. The medium didn’t matter. I didn’t care if they were drawings, watercolors, drybrush hers, temperas. I didn’t sign them until they were all completed because that wasn’t what I was interested in.’
The interview by Howing that I’ve read made me realize that it was Helgas kindness, intelligence, her gentle heart and deep sympathy for Wyeth encouraged the artist to carry on, to set his spirit free:
‘When I saw she wasn’t nervous any longer, I asked if I could make drawings of her without her blouse. She didn’t mind at all’
When you look at many paintings from the collection you could see how comfortable Helga felt with the role of a model. The peace and harmony that emanate from the paintings are moving and so convincing, even though we know she had to be a part of two worlds.
The highly insightful, sensitive ‘The Helga Pictures’ are considered Andre Wyeth’s most remarkable achievement. Those artworks create a testimony of trust, love and real intimacy between artist and his muse. The secret beauty of those artworks may lay in the deep affectionate feeling, masterfully translated it into a universal, visual language of art.
The collection is not only a fascinating journey into the painters heart and soul and his secret life. It is also a proof that – both for the creators and the admirers, the art could become the greatest escape. The daring adventure, ‘the necessary thing’, the place where anything is possible and where, just like in the song, ‘one could reveal life’s mystery.’
Andrew Wyeth, ‘Sleep, Study’