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In the tradition of great storytellers, Davis continues to approach Off The Path in serial form. He’ll explore this season, called "Off the Plank," in 2 or 3 installments and then combine them into a single podcast episode. Here, you’ll find those individual installments — which we’re calling “Mile Markers.” Enjoy the ride!

Christina's World: Wyeth's masterpiece is still an "enigma"

"Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Davis Dunavin
"Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“Christina’s World” is one of the most recognizable American paintings of the 20th century. It’s set in the coastal landscape of Maine. Artist Andrew Wyeth and his subject Christina still fascinates us 75 years later.

What you see on the canvas is a bit disorienting. You’re at a loss to know what’s really happening. A black-haired woman in a pink dress seems to be crawling in a grassy field — her back turned to the viewer, her face unseen.

Ann Temkin is a curator for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, where the painting is displayed. She said the air of mystery about “Christina’s World” draws a lot of visitors.

“And as you can guess, it's a picture that's always got a lot of people in front of it," Temkin said at the Museum of Modern Art, where the painting is on display.

The woman in the painting suffers from a degenerative condition and is unable to walk. Andrew Wyeth wanted to show the reality of her world.

The other three paintings in this gallery are by abstract artists like William De Kooning. All were painted in 1948.

“And the point that we wanted to make in this gallery is that at any given point in time, in this case, 1948 in New York City, there are always artists doing absolutely unrelated, even opposite things," Temkin said.

Andrew Wyeth stands out. Art historians tend to classify Wyeth’s style with words like “realist” and “regionalist.” Some critics were a little more disdainful. The New Yorker’s art critic called him “formulaic” — one curator called him a “kitsch-meister.” The New York Times wrote that the art world found his work old-fashioned. Ann Temkin disagrees.

“I wouldn't exactly say old fashioned," she said. "I think there is in the art world a sense of him as not radical, not experimental in the way that we often equate with modern art like Picasso or Matisse.”

Christina’s World hung in a different place for years, and at one point it went into storage — which led to an editorial in the Boston Globe. Wyeth’s son Jamie — a famous artist in his own right -- also protested.

“It's fascinating, right?" Temkin said. "Because that speaks to the way this has touched a kind of popular devotion in a way that very few modern paintings do. We could take off view a very important Cezanne or Matisse, there wouldn't be that sort of sense of personal grief or irritation that I think the Wyeth devotees feel about this. And I think that probably comes because he is somewhat of an underdog in terms of the art history books.”

The painting has been referenced in pop culture, like the movie Forrest Gump and the video game series The Last Of Us.

“I think people are grabbed by the enigma of it. Right? What's going on here?" Temkin said. "For me, it's definitely melancholic. And does give a sense of sadness, or struggle. It’s quite clear, even if you don’t know the woman is disabled, the way her very thin rickety hands, arms, are, and her sort of arthritic-looking hands …You realize this is someone who's not well — and the fact that you don't see her face is almost more unnerving than if you did.”

But Ann Temkin doesn’t think Andrew Wyeth was presenting someone in a pitiful light. Turns out Christina was a neighbor where Wyeth spent summers in Maine. In fact, the painting may have been a tribute to her strength. More on that in the next installment of Off the Path.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.