What is it I Dislike About Tom Hunter?
From the series Unheralded Stories
Photograph © Tom Hunter.
I stumbled across this story from the British Journal of Photography on Tom Hunter. The image above - an obvious appropriation of Andrew Wyeth - left me flat. In part this is because I find Wyeth, who was both a political conservative and a shameless manipulator of art world markets, pretty objectionable. (You can find details in this obituary from The New York Times; Wyeth died in 2009.)
It is not just the Wyeth either. I was not especially taken by the image - an appropriation of Vermeer - Hunter selected last year as his "Best Shot." Yet it is the Wyeth too. Compare the description that the BJP story offers of Hunter's image with the paragraphs about Wyeth's painting from The Times obit. Here are the respective passages:
I suppose that Hunter might think the "dignity" of Wyeth's Christina somehow maps onto the resistance that the Council Estates residents displayed. That is a considerable stretch; most obviously, Christina seems to me a misanthropic individualist struggling to reach her isolated outpost, while the residents of Upper Clayton apparently managed some concerted action in defense of their common lives. Maybe I've missed the analogy. It seems though that if we are going to appropriate art history to some more contemporary purpose (as Hunter aims to do) there ought to at least be one.
One picture encapsulated his fame. “Christina’s World” became an American icon like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” or Whistler’s portrait of his mother or Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Wyeth said he thought the work was “a complete flat tire” when he originally sent it off to the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan in 1948. The Museum of Modern Art bought it for $1,800.
Wyeth had seen Christina Olson, crippled from the waist down, dragging herself across a Maine field, “like a crab on a New England shore,” he recalled. To him she was a model of dignity who refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone. It was dignity of a particularly dour, hardened, misanthropic sort, to which Wyeth throughout his career seemed to gravitate. Olson is shown in the picture from the back. She was 55 at the time. (She died 20 years later, having become a frequent subject in his art; her death made the national news thanks to Wyeth’s popularity.)
It is impossible to tell her age in the painting or what she looks like, the ambiguity adding to the overall mystery. So does the house, which Wyeth called a dry-bone skeleton of a building, a symbol during the Depression of the American pastoral dream in a minor key, the house’s whitewash of paint long gone, its shingles warped, the place isolated against a blank sky. As popular paintings go, “Christina’s World” is remarkable for being so dark and humorless, yet the public seemed to focus less on its gothic and morose quality and more on the way Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism that was distinctive if only for going against the rising tide of abstraction in America in the late 1940’s.
There is a point to this complaint. The Hunter piece is, after all, presented in the BJP story as an exemplar of work that valorizes the local in contrast to the work of other photographers who take too global a stance. But analogies fall flat if, as seems to be the case here, they miss local detail.