Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stumps, Logs, Pigs: Connecting the Hemispheres North and South

Yes, I like stumps. And trees. They are subjects I have trouble resisting when I come across them with my camera at hand. I am not alone in this fascination. Andrew Wyeth immortalized a downed tree on Ground Hog’s day in 1959 at the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. 

Ground Hog Day - Andrew Wyeth  1959
It is not just a painting of a log. Everything has an extra dimension to Andrew Wyeth. Especially on the Kuerner farm. In his biography of Wyeth, Richard Meryman notes that the log is poised to drive through the window like a great battering ram. “Jutting from its end are vicious splinters, like wolf fangs.”  Wyeth loved working an implied menace into his images. The juxtaposition of that menace –- outside, with the domestic internal setting is actually Wyeth’s interpretation of the complete Kuerner household at the time. The roughness of Karl and the fragility of Anna. The wall paper and supper setting reflect the presence of Anna Kuerner in her domestic role, and the single knife indicates that the table is set for Karl, as it was his habit to only eat with a knife. Even the wolf-fang splinters on the log bring another element of the household into the painting – the Kuerner pet; an apparently ill-tempered German Shepherd. Other paintings and studies of the log done in preparation for this image actually include the pet.

Wild Dog – Andrew Wyeth  1959
In his biography the log is identified as a cedar log. But it was actually a gum tree. Wyeth sketched and painted many versions of both the stump and the tree before it ended up in “Ground Hog Day.”

Gum Tree- Andrew Wyeth  1958
A gum tree in Chadds Ford, PA? Go figure! Everyone knows to go to Australia to see gum trees. But this gum tree provides an interesting connection to another great artist, the Melbourne painter, Fred R. Williams. He is an Australian national treasure. My introduction to Williams’ work came at “The Art Gallery of Western Australia” in Perth. They were exhibiting a collection of his paintings of stumps. Caught my eye. 

Stump I - Fred R. Williams 1976

Stump IV - Fred R. Williams 1976

Stump V - Fred R. Williams 1976

Big oak – Water Color – Andrew Wyeth 1978
This is my opportunity to add a couple of my own favorite logs and stumps.

Cannon Beach Oregon – Winter - Kevin Imper - 2015

Cannon Beach Oregon – Winter - Kevin Imper - 2015

Lyme Park - Peak District, UK – Kevin Imper - August  2015

Dales Way - Grassington, Yorkshire Dales UK - Kevin Imper - July 2015
If you scroll back up and look at Fred Williams’ first two stumps (Stump I and Stump V) and look closely at the backgrounds, you can see that Williams has subtly tilted the plane of the picture. It is subtle in the detailed stump portraits, but is a very common feature in his imagery. Like in this one: 

Burnt landscape Upwey No 1 - Victoria Australia – Fred R. Williams 1968
Again, it is not obvious, but the artist has put himself into an elevated point of view. In some of his works he also tilts the horizon, making it look like he is viewing as a passenger in a banking plane. Compare the “Burnt Landscape” image above with this one of Andrew Wyeth’s:

Snow Flurries – Tempura – Andrew Wyeth 1953
Lifting the horizon by raising the viewer’s point of view is a technique that Andrew Wyeth often employed as well. Note the similarities in the following examples.

Lysterfield – Fred R. Williams 1965
(Sold at Christies in London for $1.18 million in 2013)
Hoar Frost – Andrew Wyeth  1995

Evening Sky Upwey - Fred R. Williams  1965

Long Limb – Andrew Wyeth  1959
For five years, from 1951 to 1956 Fred Williams worked and studied in London, not too far from Francis Bacon’s haunts in South Kensington. After his return to Melbourne he turned his attention to the question of how to interpret the flat Australian (very non-European) landscape creatively on a two dimensional canvas. Tilting the landscape up against the picture plane was his unique answer, a technique also used by Aboriginal artists. So, rather than the European tradition of foreground/background separation showing perspective, there is very little in his work to indicate horizontal recession, often only a horizon line. The horizon might be just a line separating earth from sky or a line of trees. Andrew often combined an elevated point of view along with foreground objects; like in “Long Limb.”

Another Chadds Ford Link to the Antipodes

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is also home to Andrew Wyeth’s son, Jamie. He has been farming and painting there since his 1968 marriage to Phyllis Mills. In 1970 he painted a portrait of a pig he “sort of rescued’ named Den Den. Looking at Den Den you can see that this is no cuddly pet. She bristles with stiff scratchy looking hair, having much in common with the dry straw on the barn floor around her. This is no generic pig. Jamie, like his father, does not paint generic subjects. Although a benign enough pig, the size, brute strength, and prickly hair, illustrate that intimidating Wyeth edge, that can be found in both Jamie’s and Andrew’s work.

Portrait of a Pig – Jamie Wyeth  1970
Here is a photo of Jamie with Den Den, ca 1970.

Jamie Wyeth With Den Den – Chadds Ford 1970
So here is the antipodean connection: This past February I was a close neighbor of this friendly pig in Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, in Northland, New Zealand. Like Den Den, my neighbor was a little off-putting due to her size and rather scary dental work. The similarities were striking enough that I christened her (or him) Den Den for the duration of our stay.

Portrait of Den Den of Kerikeri – Kevin Imper - February 2016

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