20 December 2010

What is it I Dislike About Tom Hunter?

Anchor and Hope, 2009
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.)

Christina’s World, 1948, by Andrew Wyeth © MOMA.

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:

Unheralded Stories, . . . references great tableaux painters to relate stories from the social history of Hackney.

In Anchor and Hope, for example, a woman crawls through long grass, evoking Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World. In Hunter’s image she’s looking towards an Upper Clapton council estate, the scene of fierce fighting when bailiffs and the police tried to evict all the residents. “It’s nice to be in your own backyard, rather than being the great white explorer,” Hunter says. “Anthropologists going off to deepest darkest Africa to see other cultures don’t realise what’s going on on their own doorstep.”

*****

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.

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.

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.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Edward Richardson said...

Wyeth was a "shameless manipulator of art world markets" (WOW!) yet this, his Mona Lisa, sold for $1,800.

I must be missing something! I'm unsure of his politics but it can't be worse than Picasso joining the French Communist Party while simultaneously living in mansions and having a decades-long past of selling to wealthy collectors like Peggy Guggenheim and all manner of rich elites.

30 May, 2013 20:19  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for your comment.

That you think Picasso was a hypocrite has nothing to do with Wyeth's behavior. It is possible, don't you think, BOTH for Pablo to have been an ass and an opportunist AND for Wyeth to have been the same?

Within a decade or so of painting his 'Mona Lisa' his works were fetching substantial sums. And that, in no small measure, was because Wyeth and his wife manipulated the art markets. This is hardly news and it is hardly an outrageous assertion (read the obit I link to - for goodness sake, The NY Times makes this claim!).

And, as for his politics, Wyeth supported both Nixon and Reagan - both reprehensible on my view. You may differ. Too bad.

30 May, 2013 22:35  

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