Recently I was in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. One of the current exhibits – Andrew Wyeth, Looking In, Looking Out – triggered memories of my teenage years. His “Wind from the Sea” painting looks out the window of the Olson house in Maine onto the expansive yellow field beyond, a reverse from his iconic “Christina’s World” that looks from the field toward the distant house.
And that’s when it got a little weird.
For some reason I don’t recall, my pubescent bedroom posters didn’t include the ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett red bathing suit photo (considered the ultimate in pin-up risqué at the time). Instead my walls were adorned with posters of real artwork. Not just any run-of-the-mill artwork, mind you, but three masterpieces of macabre.
I swear I wasn’t a Goth type, or any of the moody, dark, dressed-in-black funereal sorts. But the three posters I remember the most were “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso, “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, and the aforementioned “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.
On the surface it would appear that these three paintings had little in common. “Guernica” is quintessential Picasso, its unnaturally juxtaposed figures stacked in a cubist style only he could so iconically capture. “The Death of Marat,” on the other hand, is a realistic depiction of a dying man in a tub, resplendent in details down to the name of his murderer on the paper held in his left hand. Finally, Wyeth gives us a broad tempera of, it turns out, a misleadingly carefree woman lounging in a wide field gazing back upon the homestead.
A closer understanding brings out the macabre nature of the three. Picasso painted “Guernica” in reaction to the bombing of its namesake Spanish city by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. It reflects death, dismemberment, and destruction.
David’s “The Death of Marat” likewise depicts a scene reminiscent of the brutality of war. A physician, scientist, and journalist, Marat became one of the most radical Jacobins in the bloody French Revolution before being assassinated in his own oatmeal bath by a female double agent.
But what of “Christina’s World;” how does that fit the pattern? It looks so innocent and sweet. Look closer at the positioning of the woman’s torso and legs – Anna Christina Olson suffered from polio, which paralyzed her lower body. Wyeth’s inspiration came from watching Christina crawling across the field, struggling for some semblance of normality. It shows the pain and despondency of seclusion.
So yeah, I apparently was a strange kid.
In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to see all three original paintings in their home museums. “Christina’s World” is in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The massive 11 feet tall by 25.6 feet wide “Guernica” dominates its own room at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. And while living in Brussels I literally turned the corner of a gallery room at the Royal Museum of Art and stopped in my tracks to see “The Death of Marat” staring back at me.
I’ve seen many other classic pieces of art in my travels, from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s David to da Vinci’s Last Supper, but as impressive as those are, none brings back memories of my youth like this odd trio of the macabre.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.