Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills 1935
New York, Brooklyn Museum
From her first visit to New Mexico in 1917, O’Keeffe was hooked. ‘I loved it immediately’, she recalled. ‘From then on I was always on my way back’. However it wouldn’t be until 1929 that she would begin regularly to spend her summers painting in New Mexico. By that date the Wisconsin-born O’Keeffe was already a celebrated artist in New York. As part of the avant-garde circles around her partner, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe was renowned for her strikingly sensual flowers and views of New York. Her work had already been the subject of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927. However it was the enigmatic beauty of New Mexico that would come to dominate her art and her life.
At first, O’Keeffe found it hard to do justice to New Mexico’s majestic landscape. She explored numerous motifs based on the culture and traditions of the region: adobe Spanish mission churches, trees, crosses, etc. But what fascinated her most was the land itself. In 1934 she fell in love with the area around Ghost Ranch north of Taos with its views of the raw cliffs and rain-eroded hills of the Chama River Valley. She would return again and again to the area, eventually buying a house nearby. With its array of colour, the barren desert landscape offered all she needed to inspire her to paint: ‘All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through the ochers – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens.’
She became fascinated by the hills and mesas that in the dazzling desert light never seemed to get any nearer however far one walked. Said O’Keeffe: ‘I had looked out on the hills for weeks and painted them again and again – had climbed and ridden them – so beautifully soft, so difficult …’ It is these inscrutable hills dotted with desert brush that feature at the base of this painting. Floating above, like some magnificent bird of prey, is a desert-bleached ram’s skull accompanied by a single white and yellow hollyhock, all set against a stormy grey sky.
It was after her second or third trip to New Mexico that O’Keeffe brought back to New York a variety of cattle and wild animal skulls and bones she found in the desert. ‘I have picked flowers where I found them – have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood… When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too… I have used these things to say what is to me the wilderness and wonder of the world as I live in it’. O’Keeffe included these bones in many of her works and often juxtaposed skulls with artificial flowers like those used in traditional New Mexican culture. While many thought her skulls were about death and resurrection, O’Keeffe felt they were more about life: ‘The bones seem to cut sharply to the centre of something that is keenly alive… even though it is vast and empty and untouchable – and knows no kindness with all its beauty’.
O’Keeffe enjoyed creating unexpected juxtapositions and here the mixture of the land, skull and flower creates a mysterious, almost surreal aura. Though realistically portrayed, the objects hover between time and space. Each element of the composition is complete and detailed with its own perspective and must be registered as an independent entity by the viewer, reflecting O’Keeffe’s interest in the objective beauty of objects. The result is an image of meditative stillness that is almost closer to still life than to landscape. As with all her subjects, this work resonates with expressive colour, innate sensuality and an affinity to nature. While some have called her art Surrealistic, O’Keeffe didn’t agree: ‘Often, a picture just gets into my head without me having the least idea how it got there. But I am much more down-to-earth than people give me credit for.’
1935 Pierre Bonnard: Dining Room in the Garden, New York, Guggenheim Museum
1936 Salvador Daií: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonitions of Civil War, Philadelphia Museum of Art