SHELBURNE, Vt. — “One must paint a painting as one commits a crime,” said Edgar Degas.
Think, then, of “Wyeth Vertigo,” at the inimitable Shelburne Museum, as a crime you’ll never solve. The show, which sends clues to secret obsessions darting around the gallery like trapped flies, is a fascinating — and, as the title hints, disorienting — glimpse into the imaginary worlds of the Wyeths.
It features strong samplings of work by three generations of this most famous of American artist families. The focus is on N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew, and Andrew’s son Jamie. There is also a single work by Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew’s sister; one by Peter Hurd, who worked as N.C. Wyeth’s assistant before marrying his daughter Henriette; and another by Andrew’s contemporary, Francis Colburn.
Plenty of these intergenerational Wyeth shows have been organized in the past, but never, to my knowledge, around such a convincing, eye-opening theme. “Wyeth Vertigo” is, very simply, about the penchant, in the work of all three artists, for extreme perspectives.
Along with that goes a heightened sensitivity to danger, and a tendency — indulged without apology — to wallow in morbidity. This is a show filled with death, drowning, vultures, turkey buzzards, dead ravens, and scarecrows. There’s even a wolf leaping at an eagle that has lifted a blond infant off the ground — N.C. Wyeth’s novel take, perhaps, on Rembrandt’s “The Rape of Ganymede.”
And yet for all that, “Wyeth Vertigo” feels like a great family show. If some of the paintings feel like “crimes,” of a sort, the effect is to turn us all into squint-eyed detectives. What could be more fun?
The show was conceived by the Wyeth family’s principle conservator, Joyce Hill Stoner. She had been examining “Soaring,” the Shelburne Museum’s great Andrew Wyeth, when she noted what Shelburne director Tom Denenberg describes as “a predilection for paintings that look down, up, in, and out of odd spaces” in the work of all three Wyeths.
“Soaring” is the centerpiece of the show. A huge painting, rendered in Andrew’s favored medium — a dirt-dry tempera — it shows, at actual scale, a turkey buzzard with a 5-foot wingspan circling above two other turkey buzzards and a Pennsylvania farmhouse far below.
Andrew — a fine grisly detail, this — had snared the bird with the help of a calf’s placenta. He kept it in his studio for a week. The studies he made in pencil flank the painting, which he worked on between 1942 and 1950.
The long gestation has been attributed, in one of many anecdotes that play up the Oedipal tensions between Wyeth fathers and sons, to N.C. Wyeth’s disapproval: “Andy that doesn’t work,” he is reported to have said. “That’s not a painting.”
Duly abandoned, the painting was put in the basement and later used as the support for a model train set used by Jamie and his brother, Nicky. It was finished only after Lincoln Kirstein, the critic, curator, and friend of the Wyeths, urged Andrew to prepare it for an upcoming gallery show.
Crucially, we see the birds from above. This in itself creates a certain unease about our own vantage point. Are we in a plane? Are we a fourth, slightly higher bird? Must we consent to having such a deplorably ugly head?
The dry rolling landscape, meanwhile, stretches far into the distance — so far that, despite the bird’s great height, it is actually shown below the horizon line. The spatial effect — both plunging down and stretching away — is destabilizing.
Again and again in the work of all three, we see similar compositional techniques. In “The Drowning,” painted in 1936, N.C Wyeth shows us an empty rowing boat from above. The bird’s-eye perspective lets us see not only the boat’s poignant emptiness but also a blurry naked body sinking below the water. A Maine island with dark, gnarly pines, meanwhile, is shown in more conventional perspective.
In N.C. Wyeth’s earlier “Lobsterman Hauling Trap Off Rocky Coastline,” we see a man in a similar boat pulling in his trap. This time, our vantage point is the steep cliff immediately above. The laboring man is partially obscured by dazzling light reflecting off the tumultuous water, by wheeling gulls, and — most surprisingly — by a soft, Cubist faceting of forms. This was N.C. dabbling with modernism, as he tried to shake off what he perceived as the limits of illustration.
Jamie Wyeth, meanwhile, shows us vultures, gulls, icebergs, and distant islands all from surprising perspectives. He has a particular thing for setting cropped close-ups — a ram’s head, carved pumpkins — against dramatically receding, surreally anomalous backgrounds.
In a first-rate essay in the show’s catalog, Stoner compares the experience of pictorial vertigo to “divers or skiers losing their ability to determine their body’s position relative to the earth,” but also to “mysteries, mazes, and puzzles.”
If there’s a disturbing side to the show, in other words, it’s also tremendously engaging. Apart from anything else, it gives us a chance to reflect on the very different techniques of all three artists — each one not just a picture maker, but a storyteller.
Those stories may be connected by shared obsessions and a shared Wyeth mythology, but the medium profoundly affects their flavor. Andrew’s dusty austerity makes for a dramatic contrast with Jamie’s lush oil paint; N.C. Wyeth’s wonderful way with vivid light and color is something else again.
Apart from “Soaring,” there are several masterpieces by Andrew Wyeth. One is “River Cove,” a landscape painted in a portrait (i.e., vertical) format. It shows, in the foreground, the transparent water of a placid river lapping against a sandy bank, strewn with pebbles, shells, and the prints of bird’s feet. All this is rendered with an uncanny optical fidelity that is close to trompe l’oeil. The water continues around the other side of this little peninsula, where it reflects the dark forest on the far bank. We don’t see the actual forest, only its reflection.
For a tall painting that, from a vantage point near to the ground, covers so much terrain, from close-in-foreground to distant background, it’s odd indeed to realize that one is (theoretically) looking down at everything one sees.
The most striking painting by Jamie Wyeth is “Berg.” It shows a distant house and lighthouse from the vantage point of a cold, choppy sea. Dominating the immediate foreground is a chunk of iceberg, more than half of which is colored a deep, textured turquoise. The sense that, to afford such a view, one would have to be in this freezing, hostile water, and possibly even under it, is hard to dismiss.
From their long periods spent in Maine, all of the Wyeths were intimately familiar with the dangers of making a living from the sea. They identified deeply: as one of Andrew Wyeth’s models, Forrest Wall, said to his early biographer, Gene Logsdon, “It’s the same, really, being a farmer, or a fisherman, or even an artist. Out in the middle of a field no one really can help you, you know.” (Andrew’s wife, Betsy, once witnessed a Maine lobsterman fall out of his boat and drown. She could not get help to him in time.)
But Stoner and, in a separate essay, Denenberg, also emphasize the imaginative aspects of all three artists.
Stoner connects the family’s interest in aerial perspectives with the trans-Atlantic flights, and subsequent global celebrity, of Charles Lindbergh in the 1920s. In a separate essay focused on “Soaring,” Denenberg links its aerial perspective with certain Hudson River School compositions, including Thomas Cole’s famous “View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow.”
But Denenberg also notes a more contemporary preoccupation. When “Soaring” was painted, the Cold War was beginning. In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was an unprecedented consciousness of what Denenberg calls “new, dark truths to be delivered from the air.”
Pictures of the view from B-29s and other military aircraft had entered the popular imagination. William Burroughs, notes Denenberg, wrote of “the difference between the air before August 6, 1945, and after that date.”
It’s a provoking idea, and a reminder that, even as critics (and the Wyeths themselves) have always liked to think of their work existing out on a perch, it can be extremely illuminating to see it against the plunging, vertiginous backdrop of the modern world.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.