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EXCERPT The Goal ofa Realist by Doris Betts Andrew Wyeth American, born 1917 Winter 1946, 1946 Tempera on board, 3 13/ß ? 48 in. North Carolina Museum of Art Purchased with funds from the State ofNorth Carolina 72.1.1 43 11 the time I was growing up in Statesville, I never went to an art museum. There was none; the weekly art teacher in public schools contented herselfwith the color wheel and the hope of proportionate good likenesses. What hung in my own home were not paintings but illustrations : Columbus's three ships, that wolf howling on a snowy hill above a lamplit house, the big dog that has just pulled a drowning child ashore, a sepia Victorian lady removing love letters from a hollow tree, and a pinkish Gentile Jesus carrying the lamb ahead ofHis obedient flock. Even better than these, I liked the Doré Bible engravings, especially ofDavid holding aloft the curly head of Goliath and Jehu's companions finding what litde the street dogs had failed to devour of the corpse ofJezebel. Count me in the multitude of those southern writers whose childhood spent with the King James Bible taught diat ordinary concrete objects could take on timeless meanings. Realism—in art or fiction—is not mere illustration, not just a copying of flower and barn and face. In fact, the artist's attempt to change the eccentric into the general, into how things "ought" to look or how stories "should" turn out, is the death of art, as Hallmark cards and cute garden gnomes and sentimental pastel bird/cat friends on stationery demonstrate. Those of us who had it dinned into us at Sunday school that this everyday world was good enough for Jesus to spend thirty-three years in will probably never respond properly to Abstract Expressionism. In our storytelling as well as in the paintings we hangon ourwalls, we still join with Wordsworth in awe at "the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,—the place where, in the end / We find our happiness, or not at all!" What hangs in the Betts living room now is a reproduction ofAndrew Wyeth's Evening atKuerners (drybrush watercolor, 1979), its loneliness relieved by the one lighted window and the muddy earliest hints of spring thaw. I know I should admire its composition, analyze the elements of light and dark, the artist's technique —and Heaven knows I'm delighted when a reader understands why a certain verb in a particular sentence is exacdy the very best choice—but my readers and I are not specialists, just people moved by the wedding of eye and ear, word and image, glad to pass through the surface of a painting to the story behind it, then back again to see if art exceeds its sources. "Beauty is not so plentiful," wrote Willa Cather, "that we can afford to object to stepping back a dozen paces to catch it." Many who are experts in the art world no longer step back to appreciate Wyeth's out-of-fashion canvases, dismissing him as an illustrator who persists in photographic realism long after the camera has made such paintings obsolete. His silent, melancholy work sometimes seems the visual counterpart of lines 44 DORIS BETTS from Thoreau and Frost. Critics groan when barbarians pick as their favorite painting Christina's World, knowing these uninitiated only like "the story" it seems to tell; and I sometimes groan myselfwhen teenagers prefer Sylvia Plath's poetry primarily because she killed herself, and thus reveal an appetite more for literary necrophilia than anything else. I want them to look at the language ofmany poets. There's death enough to read about. Be at the bedside of. Be on the pillow oneself . Yet Plath's poems and the others' and Wyeth's lonesome people and places also connect witii an answer Surrealists used to give in die thirties when asked, "What does that picture represent?" Theywould answer, "The person who did it." This painting, Winter 1946, is realistic in the world it depicts but also in its representation of young Wyeth at the time. N. C. Wyeth and his wife produced three painters, a musician...


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