Illustrations of the muse in the artist's imagination
Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures, text by John Wilmerding. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 208 pp. 294 illustrations; 96 plates in full color. $40. Ostensibly the catalog for the show of Andrew Wyeth's paintings of Helga Testdorf that is opening this month at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., ``The Helga Pictures'' is a kind of allegory of art and reality, a meditation on the artist's famous - and infamous - ``realism.''
The son of the great illustrator N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth has long remained true to the realistic craft of his father while expanding it as a medium of expression, as well as refining it as technique. Indeed, the paintings and drawings reproduced in this book illustrate their own story, the story of an artist and his model.
Noting the ``conspicuous virtuosity'' of that realism, one textbook on American art dismisses Wyeth for ``banality of imagination.'' But the painter contends that he is no mere realist, that he is an abstract artist.
``The Helga Pictures'' describes the relationship between the mind of the artist and his model, or muse, over a period of time. Wyeth painted Helga Testdorf for more than 15 years, often in the nude. He kept this fact secret, even from his wife. When he had exhausted his interest in Helga, he wrapped up the project, told his wife, and together they sold the pictures and copyrights to a collector. Helga, we can assume, will soon appear on posters and who knows where else. Newsmagazines did cover stories - and were attacked by some readers for running ``obscene pictures.''
It was a publisher, Paul Gottlieb of Abrams, who suggested the idea of a show to the National Gallery. In addition, ``The Helga Pictures'' is the first art book to become a main selection of the Book-of-the Month-Club. It's carefully desiged for ``readers.'' For art students, crucial details - size, dates, media - are given in the back. Each section, or ``chapter,'' includes a clever title, a quote from Wyeth about art, imagination, his ``feelings,'' and a set of sketches and paintings that throw light on the main exhibit.
The main exhibit is always Helga. Intelligent people have been overheard to say, with quizzical disappointment, ``She's not even beautiful.'' And yet ``The Helga Pictures'' are full of wizardry and sentiment. Taken together, they form a fantasy of images that are already creating controversy. And, like other Wyeth images, some are certain to enter the mass consciousness.
The indirectness of the route Wyeth has taken this time is indicated by the fact that Helga, his muse, never looks out to us from the picture plane. Her gaze is always somewhat inward, or askance, or her eyes are closed in sleep.
``Crown of Flowers,'' shown here, is a good example. It forms the climax to the first movement of the book - which John Wilmerding, in his preface, calls the ``Helga Suite.'' Wilmerding points out that this painting looks back to the Renaissance painter Botticelli, that this Helga is a personification of nature and the embodiment of love.
``Crown of Flowers'' represents the choice of Helga as a muse. The book had opened with a pin-up vision of young blonde Helga as an earthly Venus; then segued into studies that will remind the unsympathetic of outerwear advertisements; only to be interrupted by another visionary nude, one who recalls the infamous Manet painting of a prostitute that so shocked mid-19th-century Paris (``Olympia,'' 1863).
In the first movement, then, we see Helga in the artist's fantasy, and as herself out of doors. She made the cut. After the crowning, the second movement is dominated by studies of the nude.
One of Wyeth's strengths as a popular artist is his ability to find openings into the popular imagination. His images practically define the clich'e ``haunting.'' Wyeth not only quotes the clich'es of high culture, he quotes himself. One painting shows, from behind, a perhaps sleeping nude on a bed. Above, or rather over her, looms a ceiling from which project those threatening hooks seen in earlier Wyeth paintings.
In the third movement of the suite, the muse moves away from the artist. Older, often wrapped in heavy winter coats, her hair now reddish and darkening, she seems to withdraw. There are only two nudes in this section. Though still realistic, they are strangely abstract. One called ``Day Dream'' plays almost wittily with an old Wyeth motif of an in-blown curtain.
Following that is a painting Wyeth chose for his wife, which she suggestively titled ``Lovers.'' (There may be cunning in this title, too: She's his wife, but also his business manager.) ``Lovers'' shows a decidedly heavier Helga atop a stool in front of an open window, her head turned toward a dark interior in which there is a suggestion, troubling in its vagueness, of another figure.
This is the last nude in the book, a kind of final statement of the subordination of the artist to the muse, and the too, too solid flesh of his imagination.
Sentimental, at least some of them, when taken one by one, all these works - paintings and sketches alike - gain much from being ``read'' in a book. The truth in ``The Helga Pictures'' takes place between the pictures. It must be grasped as a passage from picture to picture, from young earthly sensuous muse to a very strong, independent woman in a heavy coat outside in winter.
Still a muse, the mature Helga, in the last painting, titled ``Refuge,'' has become part of the landscape, the feminine spirit of the great tree she almost leans against.
And, as always, Helga looks away. As a muse, she has proved both agreeable and independent. And at their best, ``The Helga Pictures'' do not dishonor her.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.