Thursday, February 09, 2012

The fusion of past and present


While on the subject of books and youth, let me mention that I have just read David Michaelis' big biography of N. C. Wyeth, the famed illustrator of the early 20th century, father of Andrew (and four other talented children).

Why? I mentioned N, C. Wyeth here a few months ago (and posted an illustration) when I was writing about Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. I called Wyeth's illustrations for Treasure Island "luminous, muscular, bristling with menace."

I remember each of those illustrations, and the illustrations of other books decorated by Wyeth -- Kidnapped, Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, and so on. Romantic, manly, psychologically complex, yes, but also color, line and composition implanted in my mind a way to see the world. I cannot stand on my terrace here looking at one of these tropical skies and not feel the long ago influence of Wyeth heaping and tumbling the clouds in yellows, pinks, colbalt and violets.

Michaelis writes about the influence of Wyeth on his own children:
Under their father they learned how to be literal and romantic at the same time…He taught them how to feel emotion for things and to enter into the essence of an object. He taught them to empathize with an object "for its own sake, not because it is picturesque, or odd, or striking, but simply because it is an object of form and substance revealed by the wonder of light that represents a phase of the great cosmic order of things." He also taught them to allow past and present to coexist.
If any of that sounds vaguely familiar to the spirit of this blog, you can credit N. C. Wyeth and those illustrations that so impressed me in my youth.

For Wyeth, past and present were one. His present was infused with an almost pathological nostalgia for his past, for the home he grew up in, for his home town (Needham, Massachusetts), and, especially, for his mother -- as a mature man he maintained a crippling bond to her apron strings. And the past, as represented in illustrations of olden times, must, he taught his students, be contemporary.

The future terrified him. He forcefully resisted change, modernity, new technologies. And he created for his children a family atmosphere which had a fairy-tale quality, a world of make believe, where past and present fused in the imagination.

A big, difficult man -- luminous, muscular, bristling with menace. One of the greatest illustrators of all time who was never satisfied with his work, who longed instead to be a "real" artist, a "painter," not just a dabbler of pretty pictures.