Monday’s Muse: Helga Testorf – The Secret Muse

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Andrew Wyeth was born on July 12th, 1917. He was the youngest son of the famed illustrator and painter N.C. Wyeth. As a young boy he suffered from frequent chest infections and difficulties with his hip. His father, believing him to be too frail to attend school, decided instead to homeschool him on the family’s large estate in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. From the beginning, Wyeth’s lessons had a heavy artistic emphasis. His father achieved fame from not only his works as a painter but most notably for his illustrations for children’s books like Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. His father made a sizable fortune from his works, which paid for not only the family’s grand house, but several other properties and a small studio. From a young age, Wyeth showed a talent for painting, yet he was uninterested in the more mythical style of his father. One of Wyeth’s earliest surviving works Self Portrait, 1938, depicts the artist as a quiet young man, staring outwards with measured, quiet, composure.

Andrew Wyeth Self Portrait, 1938
Andrew Wyeth’s Self Portrait, 1938. Image Credit: Museum Syndicate

 

Wyeth executed the portrait in egg tempera, which was not only archaic (it was used up until the 16th century until the invention of other mediums), but, most importantly, distinct from his father’s preference for oils. Wyeth pushed the medium to its very limits. Tempera is notoriously difficult to work with as it must be mixed by hand, and the ratio of water, pigment and binder must be constantly adjusted to maintain balance and consistency. Yet, Wyeth persevered and continued to work in tempera for his entire career.

Wyeth is best remembered for his realism and his regionalism. His works were executed in two locations: Cushing, Maine, where he spent his summers; and his hometown of Chadd’s Ford. His intense focus on these two areas is likely linked to the cloistered childhood he spent on his family’s estate. As a teenager, he would walk through the surrounding woods and hills, and he became close with a nearby family, the Kuerners, who would later serve as some of his preferred subjects for over fifty years. Wyeth was close friends with the Kuerner children, and would often walk to the house, not only to see them, but also to hear the war stories of Karl Kuerner, the patriarch of the family. Yet, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that another element of Wyeth’s attraction to the Kuerner farm was uncovered.

In 1939, Wyeth met his wife Betsy James, while on holiday in Maine. The couple married a year later, and Wyeth’s father gifted the couple a small schoolhouse (nearby the family estate) as a wedding present. This preserved Wyeth’s link with the land he loved so well, and it allowed him to continue visiting the Kuerner farm. In the 1970s, Karl Kuerner was diagnosed with cancer, and a live-in nurse was brought in to care for Kuerner during his decline. The nurse was Helga Testorf. She was a German immigrant, and when she and Wyeth met, she was married with children. The two began to encounter one another in the attic of the Kuerner house. Wyeth had set up a studio, and Testorf was in the habit of using the attic to take afternoon naps. From 1971-1985, Wyeth produced over 240 drawings, studies and paintings of Testorf. The work was executed entirely in secret, and was never revealed to either Wyeth or Testorf’s spouse until the series came to light in 1986.

Testorf became, for Wyeth, a world unto herself. Different from the physical locations, which Wyeth had known all his life, she was unfamiliar and immune from simple observation. There is a claustrophobiic intimacy to the work, and an intense sense of voyeurism and vulnerability.

Andrew Wyeth Christina's World, 1948
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, 1948. Image Credit: MoMA

 

Christina’s World, 1948, is perhaps the most famous of Wyeth’s work, and in it he exhibits all of the classical elements of the style for which he is known. The foreground is anchored in the folded body of Christina, her head turned away, and she stares across a field of grass towards a house in the upper right of the frame. Her left hand seems to be in the moments before she reaches out towards the house, her right arm is bent forcing her torso forward, and her legs trail behind her. Despite Wyeth’s veiled allusion to Christina’s lame legs, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that she is about to either reach out dramatically towards the house or rise and walk towards it. There is, despite the documented limits of Christina’s abilities, a sense of movement in the piece. Lovers, 1981, serves as an interesting contrast to Christina’s World. In the latter Wyeth depicted a paraplegic woman, clothed and alone in a wide world looking back at her own home. There is a sense of independence, and self-sufficiency.

Andrew Wyeth Lovers, 1981
Andrew Wyeth’s Lovers, 1981. Image Credit: ArtStack

 

In Lovers, Testorf is naked, sitting alone on a stool in a dark room, her head turned away, the window next to her, half-open, and her body lit only by mid-afternoon light. The shadows cast thick dark lines across her almost as though they are the bars on a cage. The hint of a similar hillside is offered, but Testorf is kept separated, unlike Christina, she is only treated to the illusion of an exterior world, not its reality. Her turned head is distinct from that of Christina’s: Testorf seems passive, almost ashamed, whereas Christina seems oblivious and uncaring of her viewer. The confident thrust of Christina’s body, held back only by her legs, contrasts the strange mix of the bent fingers of Testorf’s hand, trapped beneath her buttocks, and the stringy flaxen strands of her hair, which refuse to stay braided.

The scandal, which surrounded the pieces is unsurprising. Not because The Helga Pictures are somehow in the words of Jack Flam an “essentially tasteless endeavor”, but because they portray something almost too intimate. Christina’s World is aware of its viewer and its context, Wyeth was happy to share this scene with his audience, but Lovers is entirely something else, it is some private, and intimate, its execution was undertaken without any thought for anyone beyond its artist and its model.

Neither Wyeth’s son, Andrew, nor his wife have ever spoken extensively about the works, and Wyeth himself commented only that they were about ‘love’, which sheds little light on the true intentions or nature of the series. Unsurprisingly there are a rumours that the two had an affair, although this has never been confirmed. Ultimately, little of the conjecture matters, what remains is a striking body of work, which examines obsession, intimacy, time and sexuality.

Photograph of Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf, 1994 by David Alan Harvey
Photograph of Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf, 1994 by David Alan Harvey. Image Credit: Magnum Photos

 

Featured Image: Day Dream, 1980. Image Credit: artnet