The Last Person Made Famous by a Painting is the title of a short video by Jesse Brass and Bo Bartlett about Helga Testorf, she of the Helga paintings. Andrew Wyeth painted 250 pictures of Helga over a 15-year period, 1971 to 1986, and the “discovery” of this cache of paintings made world-wide news in 1986.
The video is an interview with Helga, now in her late 70’s, a sturdy German-American matron with gray hair pulled on top of her head in a bun. She looks at the drawings and paintings of herself and says in the film “Overnight, I was reborn. Somebody was really looking at me. Really seeing me.”
Other Wyeth subjects, in other interviews, speak of sitting still; of fearing to peek at the artist at work, of not being certain when the painting was finished. But Wyeth returned to some subjects again and again. He painted without judgment. He saw. He spent his artistic life between two places, his summer home in Maine and his home in Pennsylvania, and walked the hills and was a neighbor to those similarly rooted.
Helga speaks of being seen. She speaks to that greatest intimacy, of someone really looking at you, and knowing you. She also says “He was always painting himself, in me.” And again, “I’m a figment of his imagination, like a leaf blowing in the wind … I’m there, but I’m not there.”
At the time the Helga paintings were disclosed, paparazzi asked if Wyeth had a sexual affair with Helga, as if that added frisson to the story, when the paintings require no scandal. Critics questioned sale of the paintings to an investor, as though marketing the paintings, and subsequent profit, undermined the quality of the art itself.
One needs to look, and look again. Is this not the purpose of art? To see and be seen?
I remember when I have looked, really looked, at another person. My new-born son was delivered to my hospital room, tightly swaddled. I asked the nurse if I could unwrap him, to look at his toes, his belly, to drink in his entirety. And I remember how at six months or so, the baby focused so deeply on his mother’s eyes and smiled; he had never seen such a beautiful face. Or the way that two people, lovers, fall into each other’s eyes, and then find each flaw as if a new delight – the scar on the left hip, the crooked tilt of the head, the mole on a shoulder. It is to be truly seen, and if we are truly seen, how can we not be beautiful, loved?
Wyeth painted Helga from her early 30’s until her mid 40’s, as her body changed. In her mid 70’s, now, she is still Helga, the woman who is really looked at. She is still the Helga of the reclining nude, sunlight recreating the window cross-panes on the bed, diaphanous curtains blowing. Just, even so, we all are the infant, the young lover, the gray-haired matron: telescoped, seen.
Reference:The Atlantic Monthly video, February 25, 2019