Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
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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]

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Crosses in the landscape of New Mexico

Dried skulls and bones were not the only objects in O’Keeffe’s work that became symbols of the life and history of the society inhabiting New Mexico and, consequently, the timeless symbols of permanence and transience. Equally, this role was played by penitential crosses, very numerous in that landscape.

The crosses were associated with the Passion-related practices of religious, penitential fraternities,[9] influential especially in the northern part of the state (Taos, Colfax, Rio Arriba, Mora, San Miguel, Sandoval and Valencia), that were a manifestation of expiatory spirituality, characteristic of that region. The fundamental principle of the religiosity, and consequently also of the activity, of the members of these fraternities was the belief that forgiveness for sins can only be obtained through voluntary mortification and suffering.

In their rites, the fraternities insisted on imitating the Passion of Jesus. Secret meetings were held throughout the year, but they culminated in the Holy Week, especially in the period from Wednesday to Friday. Ceremonies were held in houses without windows, called moradas (the religious function of the building was marked only by a small cross on the roof). During these ceremonies, initiates voluntarily submitted themselves to various forms of suffering, even including crucifixion. The ceremonies were not accessible to outsiders, and only the Holy Week processions provided a chance to see the acts of penance performed by the members of the fraternities.[10]

Crosses in O’Keeffe’s artistic convention

 

“I saw the crosses so often – and often in unexpected places – like a thin dark veil of the Catholic church spread over the New Mexico landscape”, wrote O’Keeffe.[11] Painting crosses was, for her, primarily an opportunity to paint the country. Crosses constituted a common landmark in the landscape of New Mexico, but they became a symbol of the mysterious, dark spirituality of the inhabitants of that state. Enchanted, or perhaps spellbound by these simple signs, she depicted them repeatedly against the countryside, not always in accordance with the reality. It is interesting that her perception of the crosses of New Mexico was conditioned contextually: the same motif seen in Quebec awoke different associations in the artist.[12]

During her first visit to New Mexico, O’Keeffe painted, among others, a large wooden penitential cross towering over the hills near the town of Cameron (Black Cross, New Mexico 1929). The painting shows the landscape in the light of sunset, when the Evening Star appears in the sky [fig. 1]. The cross occupies a privileged place: it rises dramatically in the foreground, dividing the canvass asymmetrically. The solidity of the cross, whose beams are connected by wooden pins, is emphasized by the folds of low hills visible in the distance. The hills are gray, only sometimes there is a concentration of brown hills, they all have the same size and shape. The artist plays a game with the viewer here. The black and the austerity of the cross is juxtaposed with a distant horizon imbued with greens, yellow, browns and red as well as pink passing into blue.[13]

Compositions in which crosses were dominant were also created during subsequent visits to New Mexico. Among the most famous was a picture painted, like the one mentioned above, in 1929: Black Cross with Stars and Blue. This work is part of a series inspired, as the artist recalled, by a cross which stood in the neighbourhood of Taos:

One evening when I was living in Taos we walked back of the Morada toward a cross in the Hill. I was told it was a Penitente cross but that meant little to me at that time. The cross was large enough to crucify a man, with two small crosses – one on either side. It was in the late light and the cross stood out – dark against the evening sky. If I turned a little to the left, away from the cross, I saw the Taos mountain – a beautiful shape. I painted the cross against the mountain although I never saw it that way.[14]

The picture was composed according to the same rules as Black Cross, New Mexico: situated in the foreground, the massive shape of the cross leads to the monumentalization and dramatization the scene. The cross sets the perspective of looking, leading the eye to the background saturated with blues. It is from the perspective of the cross, through the prism of the cross, that we penetrate deeper into the visible world.

In O’Keeffe’s works there were also crosses unrelated to the fraternities of penance, and thus less specific to New Mexico. This group includes Cross with Red Heart, painted in 1932, and a light-coloured cross which she often saw in the street near the alcalde in Taos.[15] The place which made a particular impression on O’Keeffe was the historic mission church of St Francis of Assisi in Ranchos de Taos, about four miles southwest of Taos. The church had been built in the years 1772–1816 and became an icon of religious buildings of New Mexico, photographed and painted many times.[16] Starting from the 1920s, many painters, especially those from the north-eastern states, went to New Mexico, fascinated by the local climate and purity of light, comparable to the conditions in southern France. In constructions such as the church in Ranchos de Taos artists found formal affinity with Post-Impressionism and Cubism.[17]

For O’Keeffe the missionary church of St Francis of Assisi was the most beautiful structure in the United States built by people of Spanish origin.[18] She wrote: “Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it — the back several times, the front once. I finally painted a part of the back thinking with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church”.[19] The work mentioned here by the artist is her most famous canvass depicting the church in Ranchos de Taos. The painting is entitled Bell Cross Ranchos and was produced in 1930. This work thematically fits in a historical sequence, but differs iconographically from paintings by other artists: O’Keeffe only depicted a fragment of the light-coloured church wall against the dark blue sky, thus creating a fusion of religion and nature.[20]

From the realistic theme of the cross to the transcendent vision of the spiritual homeland

 

Analyses of O’Keeffe’s works have usually focused on issues of form, combining them with selected themes, sometimes even over-interpreting them. In particular, such actions were related to the appropriation of her work by the feminist movement.[21] The desire to capture that American artist in the frames of “modernity” has limited an opportunity to present and submit to criticism such works as her paintings of crosses. Already after an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s paintings put on during her first stay in New Mexico, the critic Edward Alden Jewell stated in “New York Times” that from her trip to Taos O’Keeffe brought something no one would ever expect: religion, as eight of the paintings presented at that exhibition depicted religious objects or buildings. In conclusion, Jewell noted that O’Keeffe had very quickly assimilated the Spanish religious vision in which a fascination both with life and death in its terrible inevitability was manifested to the highest degree.[22]

The paintings of crosses have usually been classified as a “supplement” to the artist’s mainstream interest in the objects-symbols of New Mexico. Obviously, the artist’s imagination was able to make the most ordinary elements of reality appear mysterious. The hills, clouds, animal skulls and bones, very meticulously painted by O’Keeffe, constituted her world of motives of memento mori or vanitas, becoming new symbols of permanence and transience. One gets the impression that the artist became intimate with the deepest secrets of life. Trying to preserve its variability in the frame and attempt to uncover its secrets, O’Keeffe crossed the border of transcience and entered the field of transcendental inquiry.[23]

At the same time there is no information that O’Keeffe was particularly religious. It is believed that she hardly felt the need for penance and austerity of life, although these issues were the object of her fascination when she was among the people of New Mexico. Although she was not a member of any church or religious group, some authors suggest that she was attracted by the meditative and mystical aspect of the Roman Catholic religion.[24]

Can we therefore find an answer to the question of the significance of O’Keeffe’s returns to the theme of the cross for herself?

Certainly, painting the crosses was for the artist primarily an opportunity to paint New Mexico; however, not only in order to represent its landscape (she combined the crosses with the forms of nature in an arbitrary manner, often inconsistent with reality), but even more in order to penetrate the mentality of the inhabitants of the region, the mentality rooted in the specifically experienced Catholic religion and at the same time perfectly corresponding to the sun-burned desert earth; the mentality which was in a drastic way reflected in the practices of the penitential fraternities. “The thin, dark veil of the Catholic Church spread out over the land of New Mexico” – supported by numerous crosses – was integral part of life and culture of the inhabitants of that state. Thus, by painting the images of crosses, the artist touched the dark secrets of spirituality, often associated with sadness, repentance, awareness of the inevitability of transience. She wrote: “In New Mexico the crosses interest me because they represent what the Spanish felt about Catholicism – dark, sombre – and I painted them that way”.[25]

Yielding to that compelling fascination with the region itself and with the spirituality of its people, the painter expressed her own experiences in an individual artistic language. Although the starting point always was the nature or a specific subject, O’Keeffe usually gave her paintings a static and monumental effect. In each composition she created solid forms, suggesting permanence and timelessness. It was no different in the case of the paintings of crosses. Her well-known composition: Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929 presents all the characteristics of this group: the cross occupies a privileged place in the foreground, dividing the frame asymmetrically; the black colour and the austerity of the cross – an artistic evocation of the local religiosity – are confronted with diminishing landscape features, integrated with their colours into the vibrating background (she obtained similar effects by juxtaposing the wall of the Catholic mission church with the blue of the sky in the picture Bell Cross Ranchos), a combination of fiery and dim colours.

Placing a massive cross in the foreground leads to the monumentalization and dramatization of the depicted scene. The cross is the key to the composition, but it is also the key to the outlook: it sets the perspective, leads the eye to the background, saturated with blues and pinks. The cross seems to be the only constant element that contrasts with the changing and passing landscape (the changing colours of the hills and the sky); it becomes the primary symbol of permanence. It is from the perspective of the cross, through its prism that we penetrate deeper into the world, touching its secrets and its passing. At the same time, in O’Keeffe’s vision the world of nature and the world of religion become one reality.

In such an interpretation of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings with crosses we may go beyond into the symbolic world of timelessness or transcendence, intended by the artist and resulting from her fascination with New Mexico. However, at a certain point the works of artists begin their own lives and allow one to decipher the code hidden in them: the deciphering that is located within the limits set by the historical conditions of the world and time in which the artist lives, though not necessarily intended by him or her.[26] Communing with a work of art, trying to feel it, is to take one on a journey deep into oneself: this is not a journey alternative to the effort made by the artist; but rather the beginning of the journey at the point at which the author of the work leaves us. It is Georgia O’Keeffe’s biography itself that allows such interpretation: tha artist had travelled a spiritual path from New York to New Mexico, which became her chosen homeland, full of creative inspiration. Our reading of her paintings may proceed in the same direction: from the realistic theme of the cross, trapped in time, to the transcendent vision of a spiritual homeland, more permanent than the physical reality.

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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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