PRINT October 1986


Eureka—Mona Helga.

A report arose on April 18, 1485, that the corpse of a young Roman lady of the classical period [“Julia, daughter of Claudius”]—wonderfully beautiful and in perfect preservation—had been discovered. . . .The body had been coated with an antiseptic essence, and was as fresh and flexible as that of a girl of fifteen the hour after death. It was said that she still retained the colors of life, with eyes and mouth half open. She was taken to the Palazzo dei Conservators on the Capitol; and then began a veritable pilgrimage to see her. Many came to paint her "for she was more beautiful than can be said or written, and were it said or written, it would not be believed by those who had not seen her.” . . .The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, hut the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must be far more beautiful than anything of their own time.
—Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS LATER, another woman was disinterred, in the form of the body of work by Andrew Wyeth depicting the mysterious Helga. And the event touched off a similar public interest,” cover stories in Time and Newsweek, slots on the evening news, a blurb in People magazine, and more, including an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Jeffrey Schaire, the writer whose melting scoop on the Helga paintings was the starting point for all this press commotion, which, in his words, “left the art world reeling and, perhaps, a bit chilled,” According to Schaire, “two small towns—one in Maine and one in Pennsylvania—where the new works were discovered have been turned upside down by reporters and tourists. Most astonishing, perhaps, is that one of Mr. Wyeth’s new temperas, ‘Braids,’ now exists in more than 100 million impressions, all printed in the past two weeks, making it, like Andy Warhol’s soup can, a contender for one of the most recognizable artistic images of our day.”

Helga’s parallel with Julia, daughter of Claudius, isn’t limited to the matter of publicity; it extends to the ideological objectives to which the Helga works were swiftly directed. Just as Julia was supposed to offer conclusive evidence that the classical period represented a golden age of absolute beauty thus justifying the Renaissance revival of antiquity, so the Helga paintings were packaged to demonstrate the innate purity of art conceived in sublime innocence of contemporary life. This wasn’t the first time Wyeth had been wrapped up in this worn old package. In 1976, a year after he released a batch of paintings of another mystery female, “Siri,” a show of his work organized by Thomas Roving for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was surrounded with pieties about the virtues of turning one’s back on the modern world. But what the Helga strategy lacked in freshness it more than made up for in timing, for the modern world itself has changed in the past decade, bringing forth the “young fogies,” the proliferation of Corinthian-column coffee tables, the revival of debutante balls, and the reassessment of salon painting.

The writers of the articles puffing the Helga discovery made valiant efforts to establish an artistic pretext for the story, typically by citing evidence of artistic development presumably “inspired” by Wyeth’s “secret obsession” with his model. But it wasn’t to dig up paintings that two small towns were turned upside down; as Burckhardt noted, it wasn’t the “fact” of Julia that mattered but the story constructed around the corpse. There would have been no Helga covers without the script that accompanied them—the greeting-card version of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage myth, the myth of the pure soul untainted by association with civilization and its enervating sophistication. In the Help version, recounted in roughly the same form in all the puff pieces but outlined with particular verve in the Times op-ed essay, “civilization” was symbolized by the art world, represented yet again as a sinister zone governed by commercialism and critical obfuscation, a place where works of art are not permitted to be enjoyed on their intrinsic merits. Set eternally apart from this contemporary world was Wyeth, a figure distinguished by his “commitment to an essentially private vision,” and by his refusal to compromise with the demands of the intellectuals and the taste-makers. To this basic text the Helga story added an equally hoary subplot, that a married man can spend fifteen years undressing another man’s wife and resist the temptation to sleep with her, finding in that very resistance the fountainhead of chivalric and artistic virtue. Purity had been tested and it had passed the test.

However, even Time and Newsweek couldn’t refrain from commenting on the press releases touting the “discovery,” and on the multimillion-dollar purchase and licensing arrangements for these pictures. Yet to allow Wyeth his identity of apartness—and to preserve their own vision of the world in the face of Modern art’s disconcerting array of options—they had to ignore the minor inconvenient commercial details, just as they had to ignore the sleazier aspects of the subplot (the artist’s wife/business manager seemed herself to set in train the sexual innuendoes that became so focal with her use of the word “love” in an interview), and just as they had to ignore the degree of support Wyeth’s work has always enjoyed among prominent members of the supposedly tainted art world (plenty of collectors, museum directors, and critics sincerely admire the work, and others profess to like it in a spirit of pop perversity). Also, of course, they had to ignore the mockery made of privacy by the sight of Helga’s face staring out from checkout-counter magazine stands.

In fact, the Wyeth script is fundamentally about ignoring things, about ignorance and its proverbial bliss, about forgetting where we live, who we are, why Modern art happened in the first place, where we’re headed, where we came from. Too often today the myth of folk nobility comes with a subtext of forgetting where the myth itself came from, of refusing to recognize the roots of civilization’s discontents. Retold with self-reflection, as by Herman Melville or Jean-François Millet, it’s a myth that can dispel ignorance about ourselves and increase our expectations of the world. But in its more sinister manifestations, such as the Nazis’ exaltation of “folkish” over “degenerate” art, the myth can he exploited as a weapon to blunt and discredit thought, a myth about freedom used to reduce freedom to a myth.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of-Design, N.Y. His column on architecture, "Ground Ur,” appears regularly in Artforum.