A fresh look at Wyeth's Helga paintings, with Heston as guide

The Helga Pictures Study of works by Andrew Wyeth. Written by Alvin Martin. Hosted by Charlton Heston. 36 minutes. Videodisc Publishing Inc. Available in VHS or Beta ($39.95) and laser videodisc (59.95). I KNOW it's hard, but try to view this informative and low-key art video as if you'd never read a thing about the Helga pictures - as if you'd never seen Helga's compelling face on the cover of Time and Newsweek or seen her figure splashed across newspapers and television screens this past year.

The video's subject is a series of Andrew Wyeth paintings and works-on-paper - including nude studies - of a German woman named Helga Testorf, who lived near his farm in Chadds Ford, Pa. Wyeth produced the works over some 15 years, hiding them from view and finally selling them to a collector.

The media circus that followed - which milked implicit questions about Wyeth's relationship to Helga - is being kept alive, according to many critics, by the shameless hype attending the pictures' national tour. (Next stop: the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, beginning Sunday.)

Some may call this video itself part of the same high-pitched promotion that has been distorting public perception of these remarkable works. At first glance it does look as if the presence of actor Charlton Heston is just one more ploy in the publicity campaign. But in fact Heston is a serious collector of art, including Wyeth works, and his low-key approach, his intelligent reading - even his manliness - support the text's credibility.

The material is not ``pop'' criticism. It's more rigorous than anything you're likely to see on broadcast TV.

Although it does acknowledge the artist's detractors, it's terribly pro-Wyeth. Yet it's also free of production gimmicks and is highly reasonable in tone, an intricate analysis made engaging by Heston's presence.

Best known for his images of rural life, ``Wyeth is often seen as the most American of painters,'' Heston notes. We find ourselves at the farm where Wyeth grew up, where his father - a painter himself - pulled the young Andrew into the world of art, and where Andrew first met Helga.

She was a symbol to him, a way to explore both his own fantasies and the human cycle of life, death, and regeneration. Heston deals with the erotic content of the works - the nude portraits are studied in detail - but he stresses the multiple meanings Helga had for Wyeth, not necessarily including a physical one. Wyeth is a ``painter and observer,'' says Heston, ``but not a voyeur.'' This artist-model relationship is ``as rewarding as any in American history,'' says Heston, and ``the resulting pictures, taken as a whole, are Wyeth's most powerful statement.'' Wyeth himself has said he believes this.

In examining the Helga pictures in such detail, the video curiously adds a third perspective to an equation that usually includes the artist and the gallery-goer. We're not only viewing the works themselves, but as the camera pores over them we're also watching how Wyeth watched Helga. We're letting the production draw the eye beyond the ``realism'' Wyeth is so often identified with to something beyond.

``He paints farm life with an insight and clarity that is deeply in tune with forthright American realist traditions,'' Heston acknowledges, ``but there is another side to his art - nonrational, mystical. His images often stir up feelings of mystery, dark emotions, even death.''

This is the video's answer to those ``who consider him backwards ... a mere illustrator.'' We see the contrasting work of Wyeth's contemporaries, which underscores how defiantly and eccentrically Wyeth has set himself outside art's mainstream.

The narrative is definitely an art lecture and as such discovers amazing things in apparently simple works - like a child finding a world of images in the clouds. But even if you don't buy every step of the elaborately introspective analysis, the video is a quick, calm, and agreeable way of learning a great deal about an important artist.

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