Georgia O’Keeffe – the cross in the New Mexico landscape

Leszek Makówka

Katowice, University of Silesia

Abstract:

The criticism of Georgia O’Keeffe’s output focuses on abstract paintings. The author of the paper states that numerous paintings by O’Keeffe with the motif of the cross against the New Mexico landscape constitute an equally important part of her work, unknown to a broader audience. An attempt at the reconstruction of the history of the creation of the paintings, conducted on the basis of texts by their author and her contemporary critics, proves that the sign of the cross in those paintings plays a key role both in the compositional and ideological aspects. At the same time, in respect of formal solutions, those works equal the well-known paintings by the artist created as a result of transformation of a realistic subject.

Key words: Georgia O’Keeffe, New Mexico, painting, landscape, cross

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One of the greatest and most wonderful values of a good book [...] is that the author may regard it as a conclusion of his course of thought, while readers as the leaven of their thinking.

Marcel Proust[1]

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) won recognition thanks to compositions in which a realistic topic became transformed into or even lost in abstract form. A specific choice of colours and forms became hallmarks of her work.[2] O’Keeffe found complete fulfillment of her artistic aspirations while living and creating in New Mexico. The paintings created there are the equivalent of her spiritual exploration and discovery.

New York – the 1920s

Before O’Keeffe “found for herself” the state of New Mexico, located in the southern U.S., she had won critical and public acclaim of her paintings created in New York. In 1917, a New York photographer, art dealer and publisher, Alfred Stieglitz, organized in the “291” gallery that he was running the first exhibition of the artist, who a few years later became his life companion, and eventually his wife. Despite the intellectual and emotional connection with Stieglitz, O’Keeffe maintained her creative individuality. In the 1920s the painter began to create paintings of largely magnified floral forms and exhibited them successfully at annual exhibitions in Stieglitz’s galleries.

O’Keeffe’s paintings sometimes resemble photos: close ups or distance views of an object. Undoubtedly, fascination with Stieglitz’s photographs exerted an influence on her painting.[3] During that period the artist developed her personal style that she was faithful to until the end of her creative career: she derived forms from nature, never ceasing to model the shapes with light and shadow, giving them the plasticity suggesting sensual swelling, reduced the volume to the simplest geometric forms, clearly shaped the composition, skillfully monumentalizing the most ordinary object which she simplified, subjected to subtle interpretation or whose colour she changed. She transformed nature, smoothing it, stripping it of unnecessary detail or introducing regularity. Her works give the impression of being monumental regardless of the actual size of a given painting. A particularly strong impact was obtained here by the certainty with which the artist filled the canvas with a few austere, uncompromising forms, arranging them dramatically. The impression of scale was also obtained by combining small elements with large forms, making the latter seem even larger.[4]

At that time, she became one of the leading American artists, reaching the summit of her success in the 1930s. O’Keeffe played an important role in the dissemination of American art in Europe at a time when the Old Continent still dictated new trends and directions in art. It is worth noting that she was one of the few female painters who reached such a high level of artistic influence.[5]

New Mexico – the spiritual homeland

 

In the 1920s, O’Keeffe created – apart from flower forms – paintings inspired by the city, architecture and streets of New York. However, the metropolitan inspiration slowly began to dry up. She needed new stimuli, a new place for herself, which could not only be an inspiration, but above all her spiritual space. New Mexico was to become that place, which from the late twenties she visited every year. She stopped in the town of Taos, and her stays in the South, initially fairly short at just a few weeks’ long, became prolonged to many months.

New Mexico fascinated her with scorched earth, almost untouched by civilization. Here she found everything she missed in the New York metropolitan area: the emptiness, silence, vastness of space, the blinding intensity of light and colour, the toil of life, almost mystical contact with the earth and sky. It is here that she created her “desert” images, centered on one object. She painted horizons melted in glaring sunshine, bones, mission chapels modelled from clay, crosses growing against the sky. New Mexico became a spiritual land for her.[6]

Among the most symbolic objects which she found in the South were bones: bleached, dried skulls of cows, horses and sheep. She painted them hovering above the horizon, decorated with artificial flowers, which in Mexico were placed on graves. She was fascinated by the shape of pelvic bones. The enlarged structures were shown by her in the midst of infinity like monumental, surrealistic sculptures.[7]

In New Mexico, she was, however, fascinated not only with objects, which she gave symbolic meanings. An equally important finding for her concerned the light and colour, to which she had always been extremely sensitive. In a letter to a friend she described the impression that specific colours of the dusk made on her: “I climbed way upon a pale Green Hill and in the evening light – the Sun under the clouds – the color effect was very strange – standing high on the pale green hill where I could look around at the red, yellow, purple formations – miles all around – the colors all intensified by the pale grey green I was standing on”. Unusual colours that she observed in nature constituted her own palette: and a mysterious combination of fiery and dim tones.[8]

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

 


[1] “We sense clearly that our knowledge takes as its starting point what for the author was a point of arrival, and we often demand that he suggests answers to us while he is able to provide us only with his desires… Such is the value of reading, but such are also the limitations involved in it. To make reading an assignment is to give an excessive role to what is only a leaven. Reading is an introduction to our spiritual life, it can introduce us to it, but it cannot create it for us” – M. Proust, quotation after: A. de Botton, Jak Proust może zmienić twoje życie, transl. into Polish by W. Sadkowski, Warszawa 1998, p. 177, translation of the quotations into English by A. Gicala.

[2] P.S. Whitaker, Becoming O’Keeffe, New York 1991, pp. 19–23.

[3] L. Morgan-Griffiths, Georgia O’Keeffe: An American Perspective, London 2009, pp. 88f.

[4] B. Rose, Malarstwo amerykańskie dwudziestego wieku, transl. into Polish by H. Andrzejewska, Warszawa 1991, p. 32.

[5] W. Sygocki, Słowo i obraz. Przenikanie znaczeń. Georgia O’Keeffe, Kielce 2000, pp. 35ff, cf. M. Poprzęcka, Kwiaty i czaszki, in: “Wysokie obcasy”, http://www.wysokieobcasy.pl/wysokie-obcasy/1, 96856.1626202.html [accessed: 12 Aug. 2010].

[6] C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York 1991, pp. 103–126.

[7] Poprzęcka 2010 (fn. 5).

[8] Rose 1991 (fn. 4), p. 34; the English version of the quotation after: The wonders of Solitude, ed. D. Salwak, Novato 1998, p. 62.

[9] The origin of such fraternities as, inter alia: the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Christ or the Brotherhood of the Blood of Christ, is either the medieval tradition of penitential confraternities, carried to America by the colonists, or the continuation of the Third Franciscan Order, whose members appeared in greater numbers in New Mexico after the revolution in Mexico in 1910. The activities of the fraternities have not received official approval from the Catholic Church and, in practice, have been brought to the level of a sect, L.B. Prince, Spanish Mission Churches of New Mexico, Cedar Rapids, 1915, pp. 365ff.

[10] Ibidem, pp. 363–373.

[11] W. Schmied, J. Schilling, GegenwartEwigkeit. Spuren des Transzendenten in der Kunst unserer Zeit, Berlin 1990, p. 260; the English version of the quotation after: G. O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York 1976, p. 64.

[12] According to O’Keeffe, crosses in Canada radiated with warmth and a calm mood, cf. ibidem.

[13] In terms of form, this picture announces the direction of painting which O’Keeffe would follow in the late fifties, when she created Horizon paintings: images of clouds with the fleeting horizon line, inspired by views from the windows of airplanes.

[14] Schmied, Schilling 1990 (fn. 11), p. 260; the English version of the quotation after: G. O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, New

York 1976, p. 64.

[15] The traditional Spanish magistrate, combining administrative and judicial functions.

[16] It was painted by, among others: Ansel Adams, Paul Strand or John Marin. O’Keeffe did four paintings depicting that church.

[17] Spirit and vision: images of Ranchos de Taos Church, introduction by G. Kubler, texts by S. D’Emilio, S. Campbell, J.L. Kessell, Santa Fe 1987.

[18] Eldredge 1991 (fn. 6), p. 198.

[19] G. O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York 1976, no pagination.

[20] Rotating O’Keeffe exhibit, exhibition catalogue, National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, 2010.

[21] For example, Judy Chicago, a well-known American artist and feminist intellectual, placed O’Keeffe at a prominent place in her work The Dinner Party. However, O’Keeffe herself strongly denounced such analyses of her paintings. She denied that some of them allegedly represented vaginal elements, which were commonly seen in her works. She would, however, certainly be an ideal patron for the feminist artistic movement although she maintained that it was men who had helped her attain her high artistic status. O’Keeffe also consistently refused to participate in “female art” exhibitions. Her need for freedom and lack of constraint also included the independence from the feminist movement; cf. Poprzęcka 2010 (fn. 5).

[22] R. Robinson, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, New York 1989, pp. 350ff.

[23] Morgan-Griffiths 2009 (fn. 3), p. 97.

[24] Cf. Georgia O’Keeffe, http://sites.google.com/site/wardcolouradoartists/georgiao’keeffe,1917 [accessed: 11 Aug. 2010].

[25] Quoted in: Robinson 1989 (fn. 22), pp. 376f.

[26] As shown by Erwin Panofsky, using an iconographic interpretation, each work of art can be seen as a sign of the era in which it was created, revealing the content contained within it (in a manner not necessarily intended by the author). Speaking more generally, studying works of art may lead to the development of a theory that describes how, in the changing historical conditions, the basic situations and tendencies of the human psyche are expressed by specific themes – E. Panofsky, Studies in iconology: humanistic themes in the art of the Renaissance, New York 1967.

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