By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In case you‘ve been living in a cave, the most successful and popular art critic in Western contemporary culture is not some young, virile West Coast loner slaving away for a pittance, but a diminutive, overshot British nun, going on 75, who works for no money at all. Sister Wendy Beckett’s improbable rise to celebrity was sudden and rapid, beginning just over a decade ago when a television crew happened to overhear the nun explaining art to a friend at a local exhibit in Norfolk, England. They asked if they could film her, and the rest is broadcasting history, first in the U.K., where she captured a whopping 25 percent of the market share, then here in the U.S., where her 10-part series Sister Wendy‘s Story of Painting was all over PBS in 1997 and 1998. When her most recent series, Sister Wendy’s American Collection, wrapped in late 2000, she declared with evident relief that it would be her last film and book project, that she would return to her modest trailer on the grounds of a monastery and recommit to the contemplative life.
Whether to generate some green for the fiscally strapped Catholic Church (all proceeds from her work go to the Carmelite order, with which she‘s associated) or due to some unfathomable change of heart, Sister Wendy has emerged from retirement for a surprising one-off engagement as guide to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The Norton Simon, overlooked in the American Collection in favor of LACMA, made the reclusive nun an offer she couldn’t refuse, co-producing a one-hour glide-through of the collection with Wendy‘s usual collaborator, Spire Films. The oddest part of the deal is that the film isn’t scheduled for broadcast, but is being screened exclusively in the museum theater in 20-minute segments, presumably so that viewers may alternate direct and vicarious appreciation of the justly famous collection. The video is also for sale in the gift shop, and may be shown on TV sometime in the future. Still, it‘s a little strange that Sister Wendy, known more for her broad telepopulist appeal than for the eloquence or originality of her insights, should be sequestered in the back room of a deluxe suburban vanity museum. But such an improbable arrangement is actually pretty much par for the course in the long, strange trip of the art nun’s career.
Sister Wendy didn‘t even begin to study art until her 40th year, when failing health forced her to give up her previous vocation as a translator of medieval Latin. She had joined the Sisters of Notre Dame order in 1946, and studied English literature (in silence) at Oxford. Eventually she moved to her birthplace, South Africa, where she taught school until 1970, when she received a papal dispensation to live as a solitary contemplative with the Carmelite nuns in Norfolk. To this day, when she’s not being a TV star, she arises at 3 a.m. and spends most of her day in prayer. Only two hours are set aside for her art career, and she has only brief contact with the nun who handles her food and laundry. When she made the transition to art historian, she taught herself using books and post cards, and began publishing as a way to earn her keep at the nunnery. Little did they know. In addition to her ever-popular TV productions -- brisk sellers on video -- she has somewhere around 20 books in print, including a second edition of The Story of Painting (The Essential Guide to the History of Western Art, no less) expanded by more than 300 full-color pages. That ought to keep the penguins in clean knickers for a couple of centuries, anyway.
In hindsight, Sister Wendy‘s popularity isn’t so hard to understand. She plays up her iconiccartoonish presence, alternately vamping on The Sound of Music and Catholic-school authority figures for theatrical emphasis. Her buckteeth and speech impediment play like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd conjoined at last. She has a sly wit and is able to communicate a genuine enthusiasm for the art she loves. She‘s an excellent storyteller, alternating between savvy formal analysis and titillating anecdotal detail. She is represented as an outsider to both popular culture (she hasn’t been to the movies since 1946) and to the alienating world of modern art criticism. Most significant, perhaps, she is able to demystify the textual surround of artworks while reinforcing the central mystery of the creative act itself. Perceived by the Art World as an underqualified interloper, she is an object of disdain to serious critical thinkers, who mock her both for her fairly strict adherence to the conventional canon of masterpieces and, paradoxically, for the idiosyncrasy of her insights. Much of this boils down to the traditional antipathy between the Art World and organized religion, and fails to take note of Sister Wendy‘s startling ingenuousness regarding sexuality, her atypically queer-friendly endorsement of Warhol and Hockney (not to mention Leonardo and Caravaggio), and her open-mindedness toward transgressive contemporary art -- she even publicly defended Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s culture-war bugaboo, to dim bulb Bill Moyers.