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WYETH: A Documentary with a Revealing New Look at One of America's Most Popular and Puzzling Artists

Peter Ralston
Andrew Wyeth

If you think of Andrew Wyeth primarily as a realist landscape painter who bucked the trends of the mid 20th-century art world, get ready to meet the artist anew.  The documentary film WYETH sheds new light on his life and art, through conversations with the people he knew as family, neighbors and subjects, and archival interviews with the artist himself. 

Watch the film here until October 5, 2018.

Born in 1917, Andrew Wyeth studied drawing and painting with his father, successful illustrator N.C. Wyeth, but eventually went his own way -- turning down a job as an illustrator to paint what he chose, in his own style, preferring the muted colors of egg tempera to the bright colors produced by oils.

Credit Christian C. Sanderson
Young Andrew Wyeth

Fame and financial success came quickly, from his first sold-out solo show in New York in 1937 at age 20. He worked constantly, producing hundreds of drawings and paintings, among the most well known: Christina's World, sold to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1948; and Groundhog Day, purchased by The Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1959 for $35,000, at that time the largest sum ever paid to a living artist in America. 

His series of over 200 drawings and paintings of German model Helga Testorf, painted in secret between 1971 and 1985, created a sensation when they were made public in 1987.

Wyeth received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and in 1990 was the first visual artist to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. His work was embraced internationally in Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

And yet, he didn't travel or frequent the New York City or European art scenes. He lived in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Port Clyde, Maine, and painted his neighbors, friends and family. These are the sources who unlock the secrets of Andrew Wyeth in the film, WYETH. After a screening, WRTI's Susan Lewis talked with director Glenn Holsten about how these people and places tell the story of Wyeth's life and work.

Glenn Hosten, director of American Masters: Wyeth, filming at the Kuerner Farm House in Chadds Ford, Pa.

Read the condensed and edited transcript: 

SL: The film shows pivotal moments in his life that had repercussions in his work. After the unexpected death of his father, whom he realized he had never painted,  he turned to painting his neighbor. 

GH: Karl Kuerner. Yes. And [Wyeth] was free to be sensitive to the world. I think as he got older, he realized that that was his responsibility. I think Cezanne said, "sensitive in the presence of nature." Cezanne painted that mountain over and over. Andrew Wyeth painted the Kuerner farm over and over, continually looking at it with new interest. So there are pivotal moments for him and people who are significant to him. [The film] really is a story about him meeting people that push his work.

When you were gathering your sources for this film, you didn't have the opportunity to interview him, but you had archival footage and you also had access to a lot of people who knew him.

I did have wonderful reception to the film concept when I approached the Wyeth family, and the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which is a keeper of a lot of Wyeth work and story. Their archives were tremendously helpful for this film. They're so overwhelmed with content at the moment. We pointed out footage to them that they didn't even realize they had -- specifically of Christina and Alvera Olson. Christina Olson is the character in the famous painting, Christina's World.

Credit (c)Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Museum of Modern Art, New York
Christina's World

The Brandywine River Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Museum in Maine have both preserved these places of significance to Andrew Wyeth's life and they're National Historic landmarks now; the Olson House in Maine, the Kuerner farm and Andrew Wyeth and N.C. studios in Chadds Ford.

So you had the people in Chadds Ford, which were the Kuerner family, as well as African American neighbors. And up in Maine you had the Olson family with Christina. You really tap into Wyeth's feelings about his friends; the fact that he was so nice to Christina, which gives some sense of him beyond just what you see on the canvas.

There's a lot of things that I didn't squeeze into the film and the one that I really wish we could have found more time for is the fact that Christina Olson was not able to walk in her adult life. She was crippled and she dragged herself around. She didn't want to use a wheelchair. So she just basically dragged herself around, I think they say for 60 years, which is an astounding thing to think about.

Andrew Wyeth didn't go to school when he was a young man because he was sick and I think he had some problem walking. He always limped, so I think on one level he connected with Christina, because of her disability. On an another level, if you think about the arc of his life and the people who had meaning to him, they are lives of hardship, too. He was connecting with farmers who had to work every day very hard; the Olson family, very poor in Maine; and the African American community in Chadds Ford at that time was very, very poor. So he found dignity in the journeys, and that's a visceral point that I connect with as a maker of things.

Was he painting these people he lived among on commission or was he doing all of this painting because he liked to paint?

[Laughing] He just went out and said, what is the world trying to show me today? He was just walking and walking. Suddenly something would connect with him. In the film Snow Hill that I worked on about 20 something years ago, he talks about how it's a horse hair caught in a piece of barbed wire, something that you can't possibly plan on executing that morning. His daily walks through his neighborhood revealed things to him that excited him.

You intersperse contemporary footage of Maine and Chadds Ford with archival footage and photographs and interviews. It really gives you a sense of what he was seeing, where he was living and the fact that it's still there today.

Exactly. In addition to the archival footage, which is sort of the world that he saw, how it looks today, which is very similar to the way the world that he saw, thankfully. I also love that we have all these sketches and  works in progress. So you see him really trying to figure out things that are interesting to him.

And today, there's so much today about mindfulness, about being in the moment.  It seems that Wyeth is really in the moment, seeing things that it would be nice for the rest of us to kind of slow down and see.

You put your finger on it. In our film, Helga Testorf, his muse and model, says, "Andy could paint the wind." That's incredible. Just an incredible thought.

[The film had] her saying that, and you'd show a painting with curtains going in the wind, these sheer curtains ...

From the Sea, I think that's called. That's from a window in Christina Olson's house [in Maine] where he painted for many years. His studio wasn't ready and he said, "Can I paint here?" And they said yes. And that led to that long relationship with that family in that location, and those gorgeous paintings resulted. Nothing can be scripted that way. But it's a wonderful story.

Were there any surprises for you as you went through this process?

Well, one little surprise was finding the footage of Christina and Alvera Olson. That was very exciting as a filmmaker to know that these people existed. To know that somebody had the good fortune to be there with a 16 millimeter camera many years ago. It's almost video portraits of them that really match Andrew Wyeth's take on them.

He could have been painting Presidents, which was something he was asked to do. He did one: Eisenhower. I think he  was asked to paint almost every President in his lifetime, but he didn't like all that fuss and all of that grandeur. He liked being with people whose lives were simple, probably simpler than his in some ways. But he found peace and calm and he respected them for their daily existence. And I think that's what you see in these portraits. Somebody said 'hardscrabble lives.' And I like that phrase.

He's popularly known as a realist painter at a time when abstract expressionism was more in vogue and so he was rejected by the art world to some extent for that reason. But [in the film] you put up pictures of his next to some of the leading modern artists of the time.  He was doing the same thing [as they were] in his own way.

Exactly. Kathleen Foster from the Philadelphia Museum of Art says with time we've learned that he was just a different way of being modern.

But in his age he was completely shut down. A lot of quotes from newspaper articles of the day are harsh, almost vicious. Here you have Andrew Wyeth earning top dollar for his paintings, the painting that the Philadelphia Museum of Art bought, which is called Groundhog Day, at the time was $35,000, was the most ever paid to a living artist in America. He was getting the most money for his work. And of course, that creates jealousies, and tensions.

And what was his response to that? Did you get a sense of whether he felt hurt?

Yes. Yeah. I mean, Mary Landa from the Wyeth office says in our film that he could recite every bad line.

When you're putting your art out there, something so personal, it's difficult.

Exactly. Well, it's such an interesting segue to the Helga paintings: I mean, for 15 years he painted Helga Testof in secret because he wanted something for himself. 

It's hard to imagine how he did that, because his wife was his manager. And was he painting them in a secret studio?

Well, my take on the, I used to call it the Wyeth compound out in Chadds Ford: there is the mill where they live. There are studios, there's N.C.'s studio, there is Andy's studio, which is a very private space. He has a sign on the door that says, 'I do not sign autographs.'  Andrew would go out and wander and I think as long he was home by five, Betsy was saying he was doing his job.

They had an evening ritual of drinks. And if there was a painting that he had finished, they would review it. They would name the paintings together. That was a very big part of their relationship.

So I'm not sure. I think she had her day as a business person making, telling the stories of Andrew Wyeth in book form and in interviews and in magazines; getting all that set up and doing all the exhibiting. You know, when you have an art exhibit that's a huge undertaking. She had an office and had staff that helped to do that.

At the same time he was making the Helga paintings, he was producing other paintings that he was bringing home and selling and sharing. So in some ways, as Mary Landa from the Wyeth office says in our film, he was doing double the work.

He was so charged by the Helga experience. And she's a dynamo. She's wonderful. She's in the movie too. I could see her being very charging, that he was able to do both. 

And you don't really go into what the nature of their relationship was.

Oh, it's in the paintings. They're gorgeous. They're erotic. It's all there. I think the story's right there. I didn't want to sully them by giving my own spin on it. 

Well, it is great to see these paintings of this beautiful young woman and then also see the interview footage with her as a much older woman who looked like a fun character.

Credit Phil Bradshaw
Helga Testorf today.

Yes, she was. She was a force. I had all these shots planned for the sequence with her about going through doors and sitting here and then sitting there and it all went out the window because the minute she came in, she started talking and I realized that if we don't roll, we weren't going to get it. So we just threw our plans out the window and sat with her for three hours both in Chadds Ford and in Maine.

Now, I'd love to talk about the use of original music in the film. Why did you decide to use music in that way?

Music from "Helga Score" by Michael Aharon.

I always prefer to work with the composer if the budget of a film allows. The music is something that holds you through the story.

And Michael Aharon is a composer with whom I've worked on I think five or six films, and we have such a great way of working together. We meet early on and I talk about my inspiration for the film, and what I think I'm going to make and I deposit that in his head. And so he's thinking all the while, for many months about it, while he's doing other things, but I always love to get his immediate feedback.

And then once we start sewing the show together, we send him sequences and he starts giving us his take on what the musical beds should feel like. And then we've got this wonderful back and forth because he's making music while we're making the film.

And then there's a lovely opportunity, where he says, "If I can have three or four more seconds here, I can make a really beautiful moment with the music that can match that shot that you have. Do you have more footage of that walking through the grasses?"

So there's this back and forth where you can really sort of tailor the film and the music.  I love that part of it.

Michael said [he] felt as if Andrew Wyeth was looking over his shoulder and a lot of people involved in the film said that. What are they talking about?

Credit Phil Bradshaw
Andrew Wyeth's Studio

One of our earliest shoots was in Andrew Wyeth's studio, a very humble space with nothing on the walls. Nothing. They're not even painted. It's kind of raw. But I think while we did that, it kind of felt like being in church. So we kind of started in this sort of place where we were walking where they walked and breathing the same air that they breathed in.

And so as a visual person, a director of photography felt the pressure of making a film that sort of met the challenge of Andrew Wyeth's visual world.

But I think Michael Aharon, our composer felt the same challenge.

I'm not sure if I felt it as strongly as they did. Interestingly, I'm more engaged in the people that I'm speaking with in my interviews and, and trying to unravel the story that they have inside and trying to pull that out and make it, make it correct, make it emotional. So I think I'm more engaged in the living part of the film, but they both felt his presence and I'm so happy for that because the results are beautiful.

When you're doing a film about a person's life, it's about his struggles, his challenges, how he meets them; his relationships with his family. And that's why everyone can relate to it. Whether they're art historians or art lovers or not.

Hopefully I'm making films about people who inspire us. But with this film, because it's about someone so famous, I think it's pretty interesting. People will always say to me, "It was surprisingly emotional," and as I reflect on it, its because we present a full life, all the things that are in our own lives, but because they happen to be in Andrew Wyeth's life, they feel a bit heightened.

We have home movies with dad mugging to a camera. We have tensions between a father and a new daughter-in-law into the family dynamic. We have a man who's a painter, who has a secret from his wife. I don't think the fact that he is a painter is really any different from anybody else who might have a secret from their spouse.

And then we have someone who is not loved for what they do, but pursues it anyway. And does it because he's got this internal drive and this internal vision and this internal passion. So those are all things that we can connect with and apply in some way to our lives, I think. And that's why I think people find it an emotional journey because from one of those points along the way, they've been hooked on the journey. And the fact that he had such a long and productive life is very satisfying too.

And so there's a pleasure in there and seeing him  become noticed again for the work, and not for the other sensational parts of his life.

Did making this film change you in any way?

Well, you know, I do think about the fact that Andrew Wyeth painted our neighborhood for crying out loud. I mean, he's like the mailman in some ways. When we do screenings in that neighborhood, everyone comes up and says, "Oh, Andy! We used to see him on the side of the road; behind this tree. He used to hide when we came by because he didn't want to talk to us. He was sitting on his car painting."

And I think what's going to happen is he's going to become a mythic kind of hero in that neck of the woods.

But that he found such satisfaction looking at things over and over again; I of course can find inspiration in  the world that I walk through every day in the city of Philadelphia. 

So in that way, I find it inspiring, but more so is the sort of perseverance, despite any adversity. That's kind of a strength that I think we all look to and could use a little bit of.

As senior producer of arts and culture, Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and producer of The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series, to which she also contributes weekly intermission interviews. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.