Spooky Paintings of Skulls, or Not.

For this intern’s money, there is no better holiday than All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.  Christmas trees and July Fourth fireworks are wonderful, but personally, I prefer dressing in outlandish costumes and being granted free reign to consume candy to my heart’s desire.

So I found it very fitting that this week I lead some of our gallery visitors in an extended visual analysis of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1931 painting Horse Skull with White Rose (pictured in the featured photo)What better time than the week before Halloween to contemplate an image of a shadowy animal skull set against an inky black ground?

The answer, actually, is any other time.

Bones and skulls are commonly associated with death and the macabre, and this association leads many viewers to interpret O’Keeffe’s renderings of bones as symbols of death.  In the case of Horse Skull with White Rose, many people view the adjacent placement of the skull and the flower as a symbolic juxtaposition of life and death, the flower embodying life while the skull represents lifelessness and decay.  However, as with many things associated with O’Keeffe’s art, the powerful imagery she employs can cause viewers to forget that aesthetics come first.

O’Keeffe first began to study bones in 1929 during her first summer spent in New Mexico.  In a period when she dealt heavily with flowers as the subjects of her abstractions, she describes her discovery of the bones,

“That first summer I spent in New Mexico I was a little surprised that there were so few flowers. There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones…and finally decided that the thing I could do was to take with me a barrel of bones.”  -Georgia O’Keeffe

In place of the flowers O’Keeffe had taken an affinity to painting, she began to examine bones and skulls during her first visit to New Mexico, and she would continue to do so for the next five years, even transporting many back to New York City so she could work with them.

The artist’s treatment of the bones is similar to that of flowers, and it demonstrates that she did not treat them as representations life or death, but simply as aesthetically appealing objects which she examines in her paintings.  She emphasizes the qualities of the color and lines of the objects, rather than focusing on their symbolism.

Take, for example, the shadows O’Keeffe creates along the sides of the snout and below the eyes of the horse skull through the darkening of the paint in those areas.  This effect causes the central portion of the snout to appear lighter and farther forward in space.  In the center of the snout is a line that runs from the base of the forehead to the top of the jaw, creating a central axis that the composition is grounded upon.  These elements cause the skull to project outward from the dark background into three-dimensional space.  Additionally, the hints of darker colors used on the bleached skull, such as black and gray, along with touches of yellow in the right eye, demonstrate the minute tones of abstraction that O’Keeffe treated many of her subjects with.  Above the skull, O’Keeffe brings similar elements of abstraction to the rose, such as the greenish tones that she subtly incorporates into the flower’s center.  She also adds elements of shading that bring a more subdued but nonetheless apparent sense of depth and three-dimensionality to the rose as she does to the skull.  Finally, the rose is bisected by the same central axis that the skull rests on, creating an overall sense of symmetry for the painting.

The similar manner in which O’Keeffe treats the skull and the rose in Horse Skull with White Rose highlights the regard that she held for both objects as beautiful objects with interesting optical qualities that are worthy of being exhibited in her paintings.  Her focus was solely on their visual features, and she presented them free of narrative or connotation.

So take a lesson from Georgia O’Keeffe this Halloween, and remember that even objects that appear as the most ghoulish can also be beautiful.

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern

Photo: Georgia O’Keeffe, Horse Skull with White Rose, 1931

Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum