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Priceless Muse 

Helga comes alive in haunting exhibit

Eighteen years ago, Helga Testorf was revealed to the world. She was his model, his secret, and the keeper of his secret. By 1985, Andrew Wyeth had painted this woman -- obsessively and compassionately -- for 15 years. Fifteen years of sitting, standing, walking and sleeping in front of a man who scribbled, stared, wrestled and labored over her image at least 240 times. Who could do that? How could she stand it? What was the use? Come see for yourself.

Helga visits Charlotte for the next 10 weeks. She will be in residence at the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Rd., where Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures runs until January 9, 2005.

I've tried never to be easily satisfied, and I've been painting like fury now for 40 years. I have a feeling. You paint about as far as your emotions go, and that's about it. -- Andrew Wyeth

The earliest Helga is titled "The First Drawing (Her Head)," a pencil drawing on paper from 1971. It is the profile of the woman we will see for the next 15 years as we walk through the museum rooms. In this first drawing, Helga smiles through Wyeth's marvelous touch work of pencil -- lines so faint they appear to fade, vanish and reappear like veins beneath alabaster skin on a baby's back. In this first drawing, Helga just barely smiles, a Mona Lisa smile, but without the clued-in confidence conveyed by her famous predecessor. Helga's smile is naively hopeful as she looks toward the next 15 years of playing one man's muse. Her posed and patient journey will yield few smiles on her way to unexpected national fame and artworld immortality.

One of Wyeth's few tempera paintings -- most are watercolors -- is "Letting Her Hair Down" from 1972. Helga looks a wee bit miffed, but resigned to her curious position standing next to the light-filled window. Her nakedness is incongruous to her frumpy pose -- her arms are folded across her chest -- and to the look on her face. Her facial expression admonishes her solitary unseen audience with the threat of an insulting smile. The school marm should wear clothes. Only in this painting does her nakedness appear gratuitous.

My struggle is to preserve the abstract flash -- like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly. It's a very elusive thing. -- A.W.

Helga goes outdoors in 11 watercolors grouped together on two walls. The early paintings remind me of beautiful illustrations for children's books -- they are little miracles of technique, impossible renderings in watercolor -- a medium both immediate and unforgiving. The later watercolors are no less exacting, but accomplish more with fewer strokes, as if Wyeth challenged himself to only 50 touches, a game of watercolor Haiku.

In "Seated by a Tree," Helga is turned away from us as she crouches under a wide, leafless tree, revealing only a small swatch of her braided head. Her body cedes to the tree; her whole figure disappears into the trunk. This painting, like many of the late Helgas, releases the artist and his model from his expected adherence to realism, away from the perfectly rendered likeness of the physical image. In this painting, Helga's disappearance into the landscape reveals the artist's fondness for the "abstract flash," a common Wyeth element easily buried under our fascination with his technical brilliance.

We never get the same Helga twice, she never looks the same. There is always the likeness, but each facial portrait is a variation of her former self.

"Pageboy" (1980) is, well, how do I say, the ugliest Helga. This woman is stern and dry, her helmet of hair cropped to the chin, her eyes fixed and dead set on some hidden burbling resentment. She sits in the corner of intersecting black and white walls. The beauty in this woman who is not classically beautiful is cloaked behind her thick-skinned mask of chilly indifference.

Then there's the Helga in "Easter Sunday." We see her as she stares out from a covered porch onto a snowy field. This is not Wyeth's isolated, micro-inspected Helga, but Helga alone, staring out on the not quite frozen landscape and the sky mirrored in the lake. She is somber and reflective, by this man's measure a medium state of mind for Helga. Her absorption in the white landscape before her affords a reprieve from a melancholic refrain that weaves though these pictures as sober and restrained as the braids in her hair.

People talk to me about the mood of melancholy in my pictures. I do have this feeling that time passes -- a yearning to hold onto something -- which might strike people as sad. -- A.W.

Helga is most beautiful when sleeping. In sleep Helga blossoms, in sleep she gives her anxious melancholy a rest. Sleep is Helga's relief from herself, and from Wyeth. In these portraits, both artist and model seem to shed the shared burden of willed wakefulness. The waking portraits are all long sighs or shallow breaths, melancholic resignation or muted anxiety.

Sleep relaxes and softens Helga's taut face, and relaxes and loosens Wyeth's hand. Of course, Wyeth's intense devotion to detail continues as she sleeps -- he's not sleeping at the wheel. But when Helga sleeps, the artist's approach seems not so stridently demanding; he appears to reveal her more and produce a painting less. His touch appears gently incandescent when Helga sleeps. Maybe I'm just imagining this.

Stretched over the crumpled sheets and pebbled paper, her body boasts the mild rapture of abandoned responsibilities. She's lost the tension of self consciousness, sleep is a reprise from her many faces of longing. She needs her sleep, she is exhausted from her studied and willed wakefulness. She seems happiest when she sleeps; maybe not happy, but less sad.

In "Overflow" (1978), Helga sleeps in front of a night sky window, her body illuminated by light above and outside the window. Thickened walls curve into the room. The window is framed by scarred and stained plaster walls. A sheet drapes her hip and covers her legs; one arm is draped over her head. Her pale and voluptuous body has succumbed to sleep, her face is relaxed, resigned to and comforted by sleep. Enveloped by the spare and secure bedroom, and protected by her canopy of internal darkness, she embraces the brief retreat.

Her expansive and cathartic retreat is captured by Wyeth, who attends her as she sleeps. His clear communique to the viewer is either a function of this artist's ability to receive and effectively convey his model's mood, even as his subject sleeps, or is a function of his own revealed sense of sympathetic calm, her sleep a gift to him. Either way it works.

Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. -- Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

You've likely seen reproductions of these famous works, but don't miss seeing them in the flesh. I've had the big Helga book for years and looked through it a dozen times. Not the same. In the book, you see the artist's technical virtuosity, the magic he can wield with brush and color and paper. You see the repeated likenesses, his play of light and dark, his ability to capture this woman's moods.

What's missing most in the picture book is the touch of the artist's fingers across the paper capturing the essence of this remote woman over and over again. It's the difference between reading a description of her skin and drifting your fingers across her cheek. What you can't see in reproductions is unintentional and intentional blots, bent and bowed paper, reconsidered lines gone over and over again, the artist's flurries and retreats -- the live act of the artist in pursuit of his muse. You can't take a piece of Helga home with a postcard. But once your eyes have shared Wyeth's successful obsessive quest for rendering the soul of one woman, you will never be rid of her. Helga will stain you bone deep, indelibly. She'll walk into your dreams.

Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures is at the Mint Museum of Art, 2730 Randolph Rd., until January 9. Call 704-337-2000 for more information. Another Wyeth exhibit, Andrew Wyeth: America's Painter, is on display through November 27 at the Jerald Melberg Gallery, 625 S. Sharon Amity Rd. Call 704-365-3000 for details.

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