Sunday, May 13, 2012

Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills: Georgia O'Keeffe and Feminist Art

The painting of oil on canvas, “Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills” created by renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1935 is a spectacular piece of feminist art. (“Collections”)  In the center of the work there is the skull of an animal with large horns.  In close vicinity to this skull and also in the center of the work is a white hollyhock flower.  Surrounding the skull and the flower is a Southwestern style landscape.  The sky depicted is a somber gray and filled with clouds, while the ground below is covered with vibrantly colored little hills adorned with foliage. 
This piece is different from other works of art we have examined this semester as its feminist message is much more abstract and must be examined at a more subconscious level.  I believe that although it may not be as explicitly obvious as was seen in many of the pieces described in Freuh’s article, this work still presents many strong feminist sentiments.  In Freuh’s article she describes very overt and radical pieces of feminist art.  A prime example of such is Judy Chicago’s Red Flag, which Freuh describes as, “a photolithograph of herself from the waist down pulling out a bloody tampon.” (Freuh 194) While the feminist motive in that piece is very clear, I believe that O’Keeffe’s painting sends an equally strong message. Also, I see O’Keeffe’s works as a more classical approach to expression.  She uses painting in a very traditional form but brings new life to it through her contemporary message.  While she may not be spray-painting naked female silhouettes on the sides of buildings or train cars like Lady Pink, her art still sends a powerful message to women about their lives and strength.  I believe this different type of expression is important as it could reach many more conservative or older people who may not understand radical, modern feminist art like Chicago’s or Pink’s, but may still support the feminist movement and be moved or inspired by feminist works.  As we have discussed frequently throughout this semester, there are many different kinds of feminists.  Seeing as how we have found this to be true through many examples, I believe that the same can be said for feminist artists.  While not all feminists fit into the typical stereotype of being radical, so not must all feminist art be radical either.  I see Georgia O’Keeffe as taking a more classical and subliminal art approach to expressing her feminist sentiments. 
I strongly believe the messages presented through this piece support the intentions and ideals of the feminist movement and its tone only plays to bolster those sentiments.  The contrast of the while hollyhock flower next to the animal skull presents very strong messages regarding the binaries of women and their power to overcome such constraints, as well as intimations regarding sexuality and gender.  The flower depicted in the painting is a white hollyhock.  This flower is known to be a symbol for fertility and fruitfulness because each bud produces hundreds of seeds that spread its growth bountifully. (“Flower Language”)  Conversely, the animal skull depicted can be seen as a symbol for death or evil.  These two contrasting images represent an important trait of women, and a theme we discussed throughout the semester, in their sexuality and ability to reproduce.  Flowers can also be seen as symbols for feminine sexuality in their many petals and delicateness, as seen in many of O’Keeffe’s other works, and this specific flower shows the aspect of that sexuality in which women have both the gift and responsibility of reproduction.  Placed in such close vicinity to, yet slightly higher than the main part of the skull, the hollyhock represents the power women have as mothers to overcome death by bringing new life into the world and to raise that life to surpass evil as is inferred by the white color of the flower symbolizing purity.  The white color of this particular flower is also known to represent female ambition.  (“The History”)  While the skull can also be viewed as a masculine symbol, the placement of the feminine flower directly next to it is a visual representation of what we have discussed frequently throughout the semester as the main goal of feminism, as stated by Megan Seely, “Feminism simply means women are equal to men.” (Seely 12)  The close and equal placement of these contrasting images represents the differences between the genders, but that they should still be equal.  I feel the tone presented by these contrasting images is one of strength; it shows the power of women to overcome obstacles and their ability to make a difference.  The sky of the painting is a somber gray color though the ground is covered in vibrantly colored hills.  This again seems to allude that women create a strong foundation even in the face of animosity.  Throughout the semester we have read numerous examples of women who were strong foundations ranging from Marjane in Persepolis to Sula in Sula and even almost all of the multitude of women discussed in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.  All of these images play to support feminist ideals and therefore I believe make this painting a work of feminist art. 
O’Keeffe created this work in 1935 when she was forty-seven years old.  At that time America was lost in the depths of the Great Depression, but New Deal legislature was just beginning to be passed and there was hope on the horizon for the American people.  Also, the year before this work was created the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, which returned great amounts of land to Native Americans and gave them many new rights and benefits. (Columbia University Press)  As seen through many of O’Keeffe’s other works, she had a fondness for the Southwest and Native American culture.  I would imagine that the contrasting despair of the Great Depression yet the benefits it had for Native American people played greatly into the contrasting images representative in her work.  Personally, I find myself instantly drawn to this painting.  While this is not one of O’Keeffe’s most famous paintings, nor are there many sources of information easily found regarding it, I could not bring myself to choose to analyze any other piece.  Georgia O’Keeffe was a member of Kappa Delta Sorority when she attended college, just as I am now, and so I feel I have a special connection and understanding to some of the mentality behind her work.  A tradition of Kappa Delta is the importance of white flowers and the contrasting delicateness of feminism yet the strength of purity and power they represent.  When I saw the flower I was immediately draw into the painting, and the contrasting imagery of the skull made me feel empowered.  The bright colors used were appealing, yet they still presented a calm tone I felt I could easily identify with.  Over all, I felt “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills” painted by Georgia O’Keeffe is a strong piece of feminist art, presenting messages regarding women’s power in their sexuality and the need for equality in gender. 

By: Andrea, A. 

Works Cited

"Collections: American Art: Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills." Brooklyn Museum: American Art. Brooklyn Museum. Web. 13 May 2012. <>.

Columbia University Press. "Indian Reorganization Act." Columbia University Press. Web. 11 May 2012. < Reorganization Act>.

"Flower Language." New Age. Glastonbury Festival, 2003-2011. Web. 11 May 2012. <>.

Frueh, Joanna. “The Body Through Women’s Eyes” in The Power of Feminist Art, p. 190-207.

Seely, Megan. “The F-Word: An Introduction.” Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist. p. 1-14. Print.

"The History and Language of Flowers." Language of Flowers. Victorian Bazaar, 2000. Web. 11 May 2012. <>.


Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. 1992. Photograph. Brooklyn Museum: American Art, New York City. Brooklyn Museum: American Art Collection. Brooklyn Museum. Web. 11 May 2012. <>.

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