Friday, October 26, 2007

Old Man River

A view of the Brandywine River from behind the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bob.)

Ol' Man River,
Dat Ol' Man River,
He mus' know sumpin',
But don' say nothin';
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.

Ol’ Man River, music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Last week, my photographer Dave and I had an amazing day in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, getting a personal glimpse into the Brandywine School of yesterday and today. We met with Karl J. Kuerner and his wife, Louise, to talk about his new book and about his art in general. Mr. and Mrs. Kuerner graciously and generously allowed us into their home, Karl’s studio, and even the Kuerner farm made famous in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. We even got to meet Karl’s father, 80-year-old Karl Jr., as he was hammering together a structure for the farm’s new goat—a living testament to the power of hard work and loving what you do. I hope to generate from that meeting a larger profile piece on Karl to market to a magazine or newspaper in the Philadelphia area to promote Karl’s art as well as remind the general public that the Brandywine School lives on today.

A view of the path following along the Brandywine River behind the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bob.)

Speaking of living on today… After meeting with Karl and Louise, we drove over to the Brandywine River Museum to see the current exhibits, including Flights into Fantasy (which I reviewed previously) and the new, just completed Andrew Wyeth tempera self-portrait, Me. Unfortunately, images of the painting are not available, so I’ll have to describe it as best as I can. This large tempera shows the back of one of Mr. Wyeth’s properties on a snowy day, with the top of the building (cropped out of the painting) reflected in the water flowing behind it. Trees line the sides of the river as Wyeth, seen from behind in the lower left-hand corner, sits on the bank in a long, blue coat and black leggings and boots, painting the scene onto a pad on his lap.

We were told that Mr. Wyeth originally didn’t plan on including himself in the painting. When he put his long blue coat down for a moment and walked away, he liked the effect and dashed off a quick watercolor of himself painting in the coat. Placing the watercolor of himself against the landscape, he decided to include himself in. That story reminded me of the earlier story about Christina’s World in which Wyeth painted the entire field before adding the figure of Christina Olsen, as if the field itself could serve as a fitting portrait. In many ways, Me could stand as Andy’s World even without the charming figure in the corner. Here you have the typical scene of Wyeth’s Chadds Ford, but he explicitly denies you a direct look at most of the building, choosing instead to let you see it in the water’s reflection, which stands in for his own reflective powers. By placing the view of the building it in the moving water, Wyeth captures the dual nature of the image: a static building within his ever-changing, continually evolving view of it. For Wyeth, time flows like a river, eddying and pooling at his whim, yet always moving—the same river yet always different. By placing himself on the periphery of the scene, facing away from the viewer, Wyeth directs all eyes on the reflected scene itself, the surface behind which the depths of his imagination and all his art exist.

Later, we went to the N.C. Wyeth gallery and viewed his In a Dream I Meet General Washington, a 1930 painting in which N.C. recounts how George Washington came to him in a dream to instruct him on how to paint the Battle of Brandywine in a mural. Men in Revolutionary War uniforms flood the background as Washington and N.C. converse center stage. In the lower-left corner, N.C. paints his 12-year-old son Andrew, intently drawing the scene beneath a mop of blond hair as he sits beside his dog. I realized then that N.C.’s In a Dream… would make a wonderful pendant to hang beside the new Me. In the 1930 painting, we see young Andy looking forward to the world of imagination and wonder opened up to him by his father, a path he took, but in his own fashion. Nearly eighty years later, in Me, we see Andy in the corner again, but now looking back on a lifetime of memories and masterpieces, the snows of yesteryear thawing and feeding the river of time flowing by endlessly, yet pausing here and there for us to wonder and reflect. For any other artist, Me could punctuate the closure of a grand career, but for Andrew Wyeth, Me represents another exclamation point in his endless dialogue with memory, historical and personal. Like the song says, Old Man Wyeth must know something, but don’t say nothing (except in paint), and just keeps rolling along.

[Many thanks, again, to Karl J. and Louise Kuerner and to Karl Kuerner, Jr. for a wonderful day of art, history, and conversation. Also, many thanks to the Brandywine River Museum for providing press passes for us to see the new Andrew Wyeth self-portrait Me and the rest of the collection.]

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