Wyeth Speaks Of The Helga Pictures, He Said: "Sometimes, I Just Let Them Fall To The Floor, And I Would Walk All Over Them, Or Let My Dog Trample Over Them."

Posted: January 26, 1993

On a recent cold day, a line of visitors had formed in front of the ticket office at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford to see the paintings that have come to be called "the Helga pictures." Many had seen the collection in 1987, at its controversial debut at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They wanted to see the paintings again.

Andrew Wyeth lives a short distance away. During the run of the show, which ended earlier this month, he would leave his house, go around to the back of the Brandywine River Museum and get a glimpse of the crowds. He wondered what people were saying - not critics, but the everyday folks who queued up, as on opening night at a movie, to see his work. Six years ago, when Wyeth was caught up in what he now describes in characteristic understatement as "a great flurry" of attention over the Helga pictures, he didn't have a chance to ask.

"It wasn't anything deliberate on my part," Wyeth said, recalling the reaction to the revelation that he had painted Helga Testorf, a Chadds Ford neighbor, in secret for 15 years. "I just did (these) sketches and paintings and put them away. I didn't want to think about them," said Wyeth, who spoke recently at his home, a restored stone house that stands as part of an old mill complex, close to the Brandywine Creek.

"I just put them away. Sometimes, I just let them fall to the floor, and I would just walk all over them, or let my dog trample over them. One time, I even ripped a picture in half. The (Brandywine) museum put that one together again."

The museum also put the Helga show together again and presented it for the first time near where the Helga pictures were painted. In addition to the Washington exhibition, they had been shown in Houston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn, Boston, even Japan - but never here. They were purchased by a Philadelphia-area businessman and then sold to an unidentified collector, or

collectors. Well, not unidentified to everybody; the Brandywine knew how to get them here.

The Brandywine's arrangement to reconstruct the exhibit was also its good fortune. The show was so popular it was extended beyond its scheduled November closing. It drew almost 124,000 people, more than any other show in the museum's 22 years.


Despite an aversion to publicity, Wyeth had granted an interview partly to discuss the public's positive reaction to his work. In the process, he spoke about his relationship with Helga. Wyeth has avoided talking about the subject, fearing that the "soap opera" appeal of the story, as he once called it, would obscure his own story.

Seated on a small white couch in his living room, Wyeth - who is given to wearing costumes from a collection owned by his late father, illustator N. C. Wyeth - looked like a classic sea captain. His blue blazer carried shiny bottons on the shoulders and in a row down the front. He wore buckled shoes.

At 75, Andrew Wyeth was a spry and sympathetic host, agreeable and easily given over to the feelings and opinions of others. He was expressive, breaking into gleeful smiles, his dark eyes becoming half-moons so that he looked like Christmas cheer personified.

At times, he spoke in the indignant, weary tones of one in traffic court, enumerating the details leading up to the big crash. Occasionally, he looked to the center of the room as if a collective image of all his critics were standing there.

Wyeth settled into his rhetorical method of speaking, his voice dipping

from highs to lows.

"Well, of course, it was love," he said, recalling the one-word explanation from his wife, Betsy, that was seized by the media as proof that Wyeth had an affair with his model. "Everything I paint is about love. Why paint something you don't know, you don't love?"

Wyeth agreed that his long-term modeling arrangement with Helga was unusual for artists today. The practice was more common in the early part of the century, when the realist tradition was still based on life studies. Wyeth, however, uses his live models not as portraits but as an integral part of the settings of his work.

Still, Wyeth stressed that his artist-model relationship with Helga came about, like any other he has entered, by chance; he does not officially hire models for artistic studies, nor does he see himself as a portrait painter. Helga was never paid and, said Wyeth, never wanted to be. To Wyeth, models, landscapes and other subjects in his paintings are all the same; he sees something from one in the other. During the interview, for instance, he referred to "the bone structure of a landscape."

Wyeth, who is part German, part Swiss, says that from the time he was a child, he has always been fascinated with the German character and outlook. He said Helga had been part of that general interest. "I was over there one day, and I met her," Wyeth said of his first meeting in 1970 with Helga, who at the time was a housekeeper at the nearby Kuerner farm, a place Wyeth had painted extensively.

"She had four children, but she was in very good shape," Wyeth said, ''She was very willing. She told me that she always wanted to pose for an artist. Nothing was planned. I just got sort of involved."

How involved, Wyeth did not say. But he clearly dislikes the idea that people point to his numerous years of painting her as a way of saying that Wyeth is obsessed by Helga.

"I don't think of things in terms of a series," Wyeth said. "I don't cut things off like, 'This is a job, and now I'm finished.' It's a constant process for me. Constant movement." As far as Wyeth is concerned, he could have easily replaced Helga, as a painting subject, with a gnarled tree, or her own cape-coat draped over a chair.

"You don't have to paint the people. You can paint nothing at all - just the sunlight on the side of a wall. You can express so much with so little. You can express the way you saw the light in a person's face. . . . Sometimes an ax or a glove can express that person more than if you have painted their face.

"It can be very abstract. What's important is that it's based on emotion. You're not just sitting there, concocting odd ideas. . . . Helga may not be in a painting. But she knows this area as well as I do, and I paint the places she knows and belongs, and they appear again and again."

Wyeth appears to live for his art; his paintings, he says, reflect his life past and present, and sometimes they anticipate his future. "Someone asked me once if I kept a diary, and I said, 'No. My paintings are my diary.' My work is a portrait of me."

For Wyeth, painting is a two-way process of involvement and detachment. He is fond of saying that he becomes "invisible" when he paints, like a ghost with a sketchbook. It is an approach that Wyeth may have inherited from his father, whose advice to young Andrew was: "Never paint the material of the sleeve. Become the sleeve."

"Yes, it's a very romantic notion," Wyeth said of his reliance on invisible guidelines, allowing his emotions to determine the course of a painting. "I'm a complete romantic. I'm very proud about that. As long as you don't get too sickeningly sweet."

Wyeth dismisses criticism that he paints only nostalgic scenes in Chadds Ford and Maine that are pictorial because of their realism. "I have nothing against photography," Wyeth said, acknowledging that many artists now draw

from pictures they have taken, replacing spontaneous, outdoor work.

"If others need to use it, that's fine. What I don't like about photography is that you're tying it (the scene) down. When I go out, I'm full of imagination. I see the colors of the land, the brilliance of a fire, and it just sends me. The photograph makes it all dismally commonplace."

Wyeth looked closely at the face of his visitor. "It's all in your imagination," he said. "It's your point of view that counts. Nothing is new. Nothing is new. It's how you look at it."

Wyeth maintains a driven schedule, working at all hours of the day and night, driven by what captures his imagination. "I depend on that - the emotion, the excitement," he said, relishing his reliance on seeing a subject for a painting from the corner of his eye or in a simple passing moment. "I see something that excites me, and I'm off. My wife never knows where I am. I forget about time. I forget about meals. I forget about everything."

"That's what makes me a difficult man to live with, I suppose," Wyeth added. "I never know what will happen - what I'll do.

"Who knows - I might go to Spain," he said, as if settling a long- standing argument; he has never painted abroad. "I never know what I'll do. I don't have any plans of staying this way until I leave this Earth, you know."

comments powered by Disqus