American Horror Story

Christina’s World (1948) by Andrew Wyeth

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

— Shirley Jackson,The Lottery

I am not American. So I have come late to the genius of Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009). He has been — at least by the general public in America — loved and admired, but art critics have been the complete antithesis of that. It is striking just how large the chasm is between the public and the art establishment over the work of Wyeth.

I for one, having only discovered him in 2021 — yes,I know I am late but think of me as the tortoise in that famous philosophical race — see him on the same level of artistic achievement as Rothko or Pollock and any of the other abstract expressionists who ruled the zeitgeist in post-war America.

Wyeth is as sublime as they are. It is just that his sublime is pitched in a different format — traditional, ordinary and everyday. But much great art is also deceptive. Particularly that which aims to touch the sublime. Once Wyeth’s paintings are scrutinised and absorbed by the mind, a place, deep as anything abstract expressionism could offer the human psyche, is revealed. Let me try to show you.

Christina’s World is among the most immediately recognizable pictures in all of American art, as familiar as Whistler’s Mother or Grant Wood’s American Gothic

When you first look at Christina’s World it seems such a very simple painting. The woman in the painting was Anna Christina Olson (May 3, 1893 — January 27, 1968). Anna had a degenerative muscular disorder which meant that she could not walk from roughly 30 years old. She was firmly against using a wheelchair, so she would crawl everywhere. Wyeth was inspired to create the painting when he saw her crawling across a field while he was watching from a window in the house.

The contents are very limited and much of the painting is really of the land with those iconic, rural, American buildings placed at the very top. The figure of Christina is accentuated by these relatively tiny but important extras. She is the central focus of the painting as she looks towards those buildings. Yet her pose is everything in this painting. It is an awkward position. It is not a physical position we would normally adopt when sitting down upon the ground. Her body position is wrong. Something is not right here. And that is the point of this painting by Andrew Wyeth. We are not allowed to see her face. Her expression is denied us. We must work out what is happening by ourselves. And ‘something’ is most definitely happening.

In the June 26th, 1948 issue of The New Yorker a short story was first published. It was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I have written about her story in a previous piece

so I dont want to spend too much time on going over her now iconic story. But I would strongly suggest there is a deep connection between story and painting. It is not just that the date for painting and story are the same year — 1948 — but there is, when you look at Wyeth’s painting a sense of something disturbing happening or about to happen. This would explain the odd unnatural positioning of Christina as she quickly turns towards the homestead. Has she heard a scream? A gunshot? Something out of the ordinary is happening here.

What I believe Wyeth has displayed here is the feeling of horror that comes from something that one cannot see but can only feel and sense because of its disturbance of the normative. Christina’s World — her entire existence — has justthis moment been destabilised by forces unknown. Her own vulnerability accentuates this situation. She cannot run to or away from the danger. Her body language suggests there is danger. It is undeniable. It is the same sense of horror here, that is encapsulated in the early part of The Lottery. It is an awakening to the awareness of horror.

Jackson creates a contemporary small-town American world and embroiders upon this a description of an annual rite known as “the lottery”. It is their annual event, which in the local tradition is apparently practiced to ensure a good harvest,

Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon

But quickly we are disabused of this quite normative tradition in most rural communities around the World and shown a ceremony of horror and eventual death. Perhaps Christina can hear the screams of Mrs Hutchinson? The lack of others in the painting — there is washing on the line but no figures can be observed inside the buildings — could be, because they are at ‘‘the lottery’. Death might also be indirectly present in the painting but this time from another more subliminal source — the recent tragic death of Wyeth’s father. His father’s death, according to Wyeth,

put me in touch with something beyond me, things to think and feel, things that meant everything to me.”

His father, N.C. Wyeth had been killed at a railway crossing just three years earlier, and Andrew’s work underwent a significant change after the loss. His palette became muted, his landscapes barren, and his figures seemed plaintive. Christina’s World epitomizes these traits and conveys the impression that it is an outward expression of Wyeth’s inner grief. Although it is more than just grief on display here.

It may well be that Wyeth has created pictorially the moment when he heard the news of the death of his father or even, that moment, when death smashes into this world to remove his father without any warning. The impact must have been devastating. A major disturbance of the normative. A quintessential requirement for any horror story. Subtly and sublimely expressed in his painting Christina’s World, and, central to that now legendary, horror story, by Shirley Jackson.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the two paintings is Christina’s World (the other one being Vincent van Gogh’s Bridge at Arles) hanging on the living room wall of “an elegant, anonymous hotel suite” to which the astronaut David Bowman is transported after passing through the Star Gate. However, it does not appear in the sublime film adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick which is a great pity.

But the painting is explicitly referenced on one of the posters for the infamous horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in which Leatherface is running between the barn and the house while the lying woman would now be Sally Hardesty. So not only does the painting echo an American Horror Story it finds itself linked to an iconic horror film as well. And it is placed alongside a work of art by Vincent van Gogh in Clarke’s science-fiction masterpiece. From the horrific to the sublime.

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