Art: Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret

The Helga collection, a hidden treasure trove

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In 1948, Christina's World -- Wyeth's landscape of a farmhouse, a hill and the tortured girlish figure at the hill's base -- became an indelible part of postwar America's visual vocabulary and made the 31-year-old son of Illustrator N.C. Wyeth a star. As it happens, Christina Olson, Wyeth's neighbor in Cushing, Me., was no girl (she was 55 at the time), no delicate sylph. She did not even pose for her most famous painting; the figure's torso is Betsy's. But the work was honest in its essentials, and it established Wyeth's world as a place of physical grandeur and psychic pain. No wonder Betsy compares her husband to Ingmar Bergman. The American painter and the Swedish filmmaker are both stern visionaries whose art is based not on effusion but on reduction -- experience purified, like the flayed skin of a penitent. Both document man's spiritual solitude. Both listen for the eloquence in things left unsaid, the static electricity in gestures repressed. In their work you notice the flint first; you have to get closer to feel the fire.

Christina's World also helped publicize Wyeth's obsessive fidelity to the people he painted. As the artist put it last week, "The more I'm with an object -- whether it's a model or a piece of the country -- the more I begin to see what I've been blind to. You start to get what's beneath it. You see deeper within it." He used Christina and her younger brother Alvaro as subjects from 1940 to 1968; Anna and Karl Kuerner, Wyeth's neighbors in Chadds Ford, from 1948 to 1979; teenage Siri Erickson, another Cushing resident, from 1967 to 1972. The paintings of her were also withheld, until she turned 21, and their release in 1975 caused a little of the same stir that the Helgas have. Siri, now 32 and the mother of two girls, recalls no embarrassment or awe about posing nude for Wyeth when she was 13. "He would get totally involved in his work. It was as if you were a tree," she says. "He's a normal, everyday person. He does paint good, but he's just Andy."

A man of studied reclusiveness, Wyeth once described himself as "a secretive bastard." He destroys much of his work or paints over the temperas. "Sometimes," he says, "there are four or five pictures under the painting." He claims he has even placed some watercolors in metal tubes and buried them. "I think of Captain Kidd's buried treasure. They may find it and they may not." But Wyeth had never buried a treasure so rich, or for so long, as the Helga booty. According to one source, the artist would roll a Helga picture inside some other work, then transport it to a climate-controlled vault at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford; only he had the key. Somehow he managed to keep model and wife completely apart. Though Helga is employed as a cook and housekeeper by Wyeth's sister Carolyn, who also has homes in Chadds Ford and Maine, Betsy says she never visits her sister-in-law. Says Betsy of Helga: "I never met her, ever."

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