An Irishman's Diary


THE LATEST issue of the British Medical Journal has a short but fascinating feature about a painting: Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, which hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And normally I might not have even noticed the BMJ piece. But by a serendipitous chance, I read it only days after standing before the actual picture, equally fascinated.

It was during a very rushed tour of MoMA – I only had an hour before the place closed. So I ignored five of the museum’s six floors and went straight for the “painting and sculpture 1880s-1940s” section. Where, despite intense competition from the European superstars of that era, Wyeth’s painting – familiar and yet still strange – reeled me in.

I didn’t know what made it so powerful, or what it was supposed to mean, if anything. My guess was that it might be something to do with the vastness of America, or the world, in relation to the individual. I also sensed a certain vulnerability about the woman involved, although it would be dishonest not to admit that I was almost equally impressed by the attractive shape of her bottom.

Why then – not to imply that its contributors are philistines, only interested in pathology – was the BMJ writing about the picture? Well, it turns out that there are indeed medical reasons. The Christina in question was a real woman – Christina Olsen – who lived in Maine during the early part of the last century.

And as explained by the BMJ’s writer, Prof Desmond O’Neill, she suffered from an undiagnosed degenerative condition that eventually paralysed her lower body and reduced her to crawling everywhere as a means of transport.

Wyeth knew her from his holidays in Maine, where he stayed in a house near where she lived. Indeed, he made the painting one day after seeing her crawl across a field. So strange as it is, the scene depicted is in part straightforwardly descriptive. And the sense of the subject’s vulnerability was no accident, clearly.

But as the writer, one Ireland’s most distinguished specialists in geriatric and stroke medicine, argues, one of the points of the picture is to make you see the person, not the illness. He also interprets the painting as a comment on the human capacity to adapt and compensate in the face of adversity.

Above all, Prof O’Neill is impressed with the beauty of the work, and the “poise” and “dignity” Wyeth found in his subject; although reverting to type, he does also offer a possible diagnosis for Olsen’s condition. Doctors, they’re always on duty.

SUCH STORIES are unusual in modern art, which tends to disdain the whole idea of providing context, or subtext, or any kind of text. Take another of MoMA’s famous exhibits, for example: Picasso’s watershed 1907 work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which features five female nudes, in the semi-abstract style that became cubism.

In preparatory drawings, apparently, the artist depicted the figure on the left of the group as “a medical student entering a brothel”. But he later dropped this idea because he didn’t want the anecdotal detail distracting viewers. Mind you, the painting’s context remains: the “Avignon” in question was a Barcelona brothel. And I only know about the medical student from the note displayed alongside the picture, which somewhat defeats Picasso’s point.

Also in MoMA is a series of wall panels by Kandinsky, who only seven years later (1914), had gone much further down the road to abstraction.

You will search these panels in vain for anything with a story-line.

But then Kandinsky was explicit about the need to avoid all “descriptive devices” in his work.

Colour was the only currency he dealt in. As he put it: “Colour is a means of exerting direct influence upon the soul. Colour is a keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.”

This, unfortunately, is where modern art and I tend to part company. I looked at the Kandinsky panels long and hard. But my soul must have dropped out of piano lessons early. Sure, I heard a few notes played at random. Maybe if I’d worked at it, I could have improvised a tune.

Unfortunately, as stated, I had only an hour.

Then there was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is most famous for signing a porcelain urinal and exhibiting it as art. Whereas his MoMA exhibits at least involved a bit of work. And the one that detained me longest also had a textual element – an instruction to the viewer that doubles as its title: “À regarder (l’autre côté de verre) d’un oeil, de près, pendant presque une heure.” This translates as: “To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close-up, for about an hour.” So straightaway, I had a problem there. But circling the exhibit – two shattered panes of glass, with a small magnifying glass and bits of wire inserted in the middle, I wondered if anybody anywhere had ever stared at it for the specified period.

There were supposed hallucinogenic effects if you did, as no doubt there would be if you stared at anything that long. But I didn’t even try.

My visit to the gallery was too short. And so, probably, was life.