Ugly: Part 7, Christina's World

Dan, my friend and colleague, returned to our class on Ugly this week to speak about how art offers us a metaphor regarding the redemption of the "ugly."

In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton observes how in art's portrayal of the mundane, everyday, and lower class an artist can subvert our cultural expectations about what is worthy of honor and esteem. de Botton's concerns are about status while mine are about the beautiful and the ugly, but the projects are similar in many ways: An artist can take something that is lower status (e.g., the ugly) and transform it, via her moral and aesthetic vision, into something honorable and beautiful. As de Botton writes (p. 143), "[The works of some artists] appear to suggest that if such commonplaces as the sky on a summer's evening, a pitted wall heated by the sun and the face of an unknown woman as she peels an egg for sick person are truly among the loveliest sights we may hope ever to lay our eyes on, then perhaps we are honour-bound to question the value of much that we have been taught to respect and aspire to. It may seem far-fetched to hang a quasipolitical programme on a jug placed on a sideboard, or on a cow grazing in a pasture, but the moral of [this] work...may help us to correct many of our snobbish preconceptions regarding what there is to esteem and honor in the world."

In short, the eye of an artist is a metaphor for the eye of God and, thus, the eye of the Christian. That is, we find, because of the unique way we see the world, beauty in the ugly and honor in what the world discards.

Dan walked us through many examples of this metaphor, but the one that struck me most was the painting Christina's World.

Many consider Christina's World to be Andrew Wyeth's most famous painting. As most know, Wyeth is an American painter of the realist school. Wyeth's favorite subjects are the landscapes and his neighbors from his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and his summer home in Cushing, Maine. As we noted with de Botton, Wyeth picks landscapes and people that are not generally considered to be "beautiful." But through his paintings Wyeth redeems, honors, and elevates his subject matter. Christina's World is a wonderful example of this (please click on the picture below for a closer view):

First, consider the way Wyeth renders the landscape. Living in West Texas I often drive through flat, brown, and treeless landscapes. Thus. many people find West Texas "ugly." I grew up in Pennsylvania so I understand where this comes from. But I've come to disagree with the majority view. I now find these West Texas landscapes to be beautiful. I like to think I see the landscape the way Wyeth sees his landscapes. What appears monochromatic at first glance, if you look closely at Christina's World, is really rich and, with a nod to the last post in this series, pied. The ugliness of the land is redeemed in the eye of Wyeth.

Let us now look at Christina, the woman in the picture. Upon first glance the scene looks romantic. A woman appears to be lounging and gazing wistfully at the farmhouse. The scene seems peaceful and relaxed.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Christina Olson, the woman in the painting, suffered from muscular degeneration, probably polio, that paralyzed her lower body. You can see this in the painting by looking closely at Christina's right arm. Consequently, Christina is looking back at the farmhouse, not with relaxation, but with a bit of dread and fatigue. Christina has drug herself out to the garden to pick vegetables and now, very tired, has to face the prospect of dragging herself across the ground back to the house. This is Christina's world.

How are we to look at Christina's World? On the one hand the painting is spiritual, beautiful, romantic, and peaceful. But on the other hand the painting is brutally physical, difficult, tragic, and full of struggle.

Obviously, this dual perspective is the genius of Christina's World. As Wyeth has said of the painting and of Christina, Christina "was limited physically but by no means spiritually." Thus, "The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless."

Christina's world is our world. On the one hand it is tragic, difficult, and ugly. But if we have the eyes of God, as Wyeth did, a wholly other perspective opens up to us.

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4 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 7, Christina's World”

  1. Richard, thanks very much for the tag from ugly, to Wyeth, to beauty in the mundane. I found myself feeling a strong surge of emotion because I have drafted and procured restraining orders from courts on behalf of battered women for some thirty years now. And I’m extremely sad to confess that I have never made the conscious connection to the simple fact that some of these women draw, sketch, and paint their own ways out of the ugliness of abuse and into paths of better health and loving relationships. The difference being that an exodus (exodus from the abusive husbandry of a Pharaoh via a legal restraining order) is not the same as an entrance into a new and promised land (rather a “landscape” of hope and simple beauty). To traverse the distance from exodus to entrance, rather than get lost in a lifetime of wandering in a suspended in-between wasteland, is a journey that takes vision. Daily. Where there is no “vision” of this “landscape” for transforming the ugliness of physical and emotional battery into a new life, the people perish. Wyeth redeems the mundane as a beautiful refuge! About your rambling Texas as a part of the picture, the movie, “Tender Mercies” is on my top movie list; on the dark side, “No Country for Old Men” is too. So, the landscape is what you make: what you restrain, and then retrain on your open canvass.



  2. Grace
    She takes the blame
    She covers the shame
    Removes the stain
    It could be her name

    It's a name for a girl
    It's also a thought that changed the world
    And when she walks on the street
    You can hear the strings
    Grace finds goodness in everything

    Grace, she's got the walk
    Not on a ramp or on chalk
    She's got the time to talk
    She travels outside of karma
    She travels outside of karma
    When she goes to work
    You can hear her strings
    Grace finds beauty in everything

    Grace, she carries a world on her hips
    No champagne flute for her lips
    No twirls or skips between her fingertips
    She carries a pearl in perfect condition

    What once was hurt
    What once was friction
    What left a mark
    No longer stings
    Because grace makes beauty
    Out of ugly things

    Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

    Music: U2
    Lyrics: Bono

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