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.
So it‘s actually somewhat fitting that Sister Wendy should end up surveying the Norton Simon collection. Simon was something of an eccentric outsider himself — a self-made multimillionaire with a gift for cutting through bureaucratic inertia, whose corporate-raider-style takeover of the Pasadena Museum of Art in the early ’70s effectively dismantled the avant-garde cachet the institution had accrued over the previous decade, with its early embrace of Pop and important historical shows (including Duchamp‘s first museum retrospective). Again, some in the Art World find an easy good-guybad-guy morality in this scenario, but it’s spoiled by the inspired singularity of Simon‘s accomplishments. Possessed of a photographic memory, Simon could allegedly remember the details, down to the currency-exchange rate, of each of his more than 12,000 art acquisitions. He was a prime mover behind the founding of LACMA, and his highly personal amassment of artifacts is often cited as the greatest private collection assembled in the latter half of the 20th century.
Sister Wendy spends a good part of her new film praising Norton Simon’s adventurousness and good taste, and it is as much a portrait of the collector as it is a further exploration of her technique of art appreciation. She runs through the gamut of her familiar routines — rhapsodizing over the eroticism of Watteau‘s precious Reclining Nude, teasing out a complex and convincing psychological narrative from Rubens’ The Holy Women at the Sepulchre, recounting the tragic biography of British abstract sculptor Barbara Hepworth, extolling the universal spirituality in statues of Buddha, Indra and Vishnu, and offering a breathtakingly subjective interpretation of Raphael‘s Madonna and Child With Book. The right to subjectivity is central to Sister Wendy’s approach: Time and again she has implied that she wants her work in television and publishing to empower people to trust their own impressions, to encounter the art in direct contemplation, unmediated by the intercessory art world priesthood — herself included. In the midst of a prickly feminist reading of Degas‘ Waiting, though, she gives a slight hint of the depths of her exasperation. Regarding the familiar image of the doubled-over ballerina and her crowlike chaperone, she speaks for the artist. “This is the reality of the glamorous world of ballet: hard work, aches and pains, boredom.” She pauses a beat as we cut from the painting to her face, gazing directly at the camera and markedly devoid of the ironic twinkle that usually accompanies her little gibes. “Rather like the glamorous world of television.”