August 13, 2010

Nobody Sees a Flower, Really

        Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time - and to see takes time… So I said to myself, I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me - but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
-  Georgia O’Keeffe (1939)

        At first glance block prints and the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe would seem to be about as different as two styles of art could be.  O’Keeffe’s flowers are famous for their huge scale and bright, glowing color palette.  Block prints, by contrast, are usually quite small in scale and are often staid, spartan black and white.  All the same, I love them both, and, perhaps strangely, I love them in part for the same reason: both styles can serve to focus the attention on one simple thing.  They can both perform the same function of encouraging the viewer to stop, look closely, and appreciate anew something they may have taken for granted or dismissed as unimportant.
        Of course, block prints can have a wide range of subjects, and the artists who make them have as disparate motivations as any artists, but for me, at least, one of the things block prints do so well is draw attention to the essence of a scene or an object.  Without being large or bright, a block print can nevertheless focus on its subject in a way that catches my attention and makes me stop and appreciate the beauty of a curve, the delight of a pattern, or the interplay of light and shadow.  I also appreciate the brilliant economy that can evoke a complex image in a few simple strokes, or the incredible talent that it takes to carve intricate details.  And that fills me with wonder and gratitude not only for the subject of the print but simultaneously for the grasp of human imagination and the skill of human hands.

        Throughout the entire process of making a block print – deciding what to do, researching or gathering reference materials, sketching a design, carving, and printing – my mind must be focused on my subject in a way that gives that subject, no matter how mundane, importance and value.  And when I have a piece of art hanging on my wall, whether it be something I’ve made or the work of another artist, I have the opportunity every time my eye falls on it, to wonder and appreciate anew.  Yes, of course I have times when I’m not thinking about the pictures on my walls, or when my eye passes over them without a second thought… Yet there are times, too, when a glance falls on some small picture and I stop just for a moment and am grateful for the beauty of the art, for the world that holds such beauty even in every disregarded thing, and for the human ability to wonder and savor and create beauty.
        Both O'Keeffe's flower paintings and certain block prints can serve as celebrations of thanksgiving - O'Keeffe's flowers are triumphant hymns of praise, while the block prints are quiet prayers of gratitude.

        Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.
- 1 Thessalonians 5, 16-18

[Pictures: Squash Flowers No. 1, oil on canvas by O’Keeffe, 1925;
Squash Blossom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Jack-in-the-Pulpit II, oil on canvas by O'Keeffe, 1930 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC); 
Spear Thistle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Oriental Poppies, oil on canvas by O'Keeffe, 1928 (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota);
Common Poppy, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997]


Pax said...

Another similarity between O'Keefe and at least the first print Anne shows here is that the image is cropped. This further concentrates my focus.

meyerprints said...

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for that link, meyerprints. Botanical paintings and engravings are another style that also draws attention to the often-unappreciated details of plants (and in Merian's case, insects.) Merian and O'Keeffe make a great pair; when I was teaching, we did a project on accurate botanical sketches after studying Merian, followed immediately by a project on enlarging and dramatizing Autumn leaves after studying O'Keeffe. Your post on Merian is great and included lots of information I hadn't known.

Anonymous said...

this was a great post! :)