“Nobody admires my painting much but me.”
“I have come to think that the true likeness of Flannery O’Connor will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters.”
“I am always astonished at Flannery’s pictures which show nothing of her grace. She was very slender with beautiful, smooth feet and ankles; she had a fine, clear, rosy skin and beautiful eyes.”
~Katherine Ann Porter
For those who are not familiar with Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—a mix of Catholicism, horror and humor: the things that dark satire is made of—Thunder-Sky, Inc., Gallery’s current exhibition, entitled, “The Meanest of Them Sparkled: Visual Artists Respond to Flannery O’Connor’s Fictional Universe,” is the place to introduce oneself to the author, both as a woman and as an artist.
Thunder-Sky’s show is exceptional; a snarky celebration and an empathetic dedication to Flannery O’Connor, in honor of the writer and artist on the 50th anniversary of her death. ‘“Flannery was an outsider artist,”’ states co-founder Keith Banner, ‘“one of the greatest. Spinning her tales from her porch at Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, putting up with her mother’s stupid questions, listening to her peafowl scream across the hills, their feathered tails exploding into lush plumage and reasons to live…all of that seems to dictate some kind of respect that would eventually end up transforming into a tribute.”’
Thunder-Sky’s show triggered a similar emotional response in me too. I began to study Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence to her many friends, admirers and family, courtesy of The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (1979). I felt a closeness to the Georgia author and artist immediately—this is Flannery as Flannery, sharing with me her joyful, intimate and fascinating correspondences.
Flannery O’Connor was extremely self-deprecating about her talent as an outsider artist—this couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe that her story should be told in her own words, so I compiled some of Flannery’s letters into the form of an interview—a fictional interview with me, but with non-fictional answers by the artist:
“I hate to deliver opinions. On most things I don’t deserve an opinion and on a lot of things I simply don’t have an opinion.
“I am painting and hating it but we’ve got to have something to put on that wall. Every now and then my mother comes and looks and says, ‘Well now I like that. That’s my kind of painting. I can tell exactly what that is.’ Which makes me feel like I’m as good as Eisenhower or Churchill. I make Grandma Moses look like an abstractionist. [But] my mother thinks they’re great stuff. She prefers me painting to me writing.
“None of my paintings go over very big in this house although mamma puts them up and is loath to take them down again. Sister [Miss Mary Cline] used to teach painting classes in her youth and she says she doesn’t like this modern art because it’s not ‘smoothed down.’ My mamma says it’s not modern art (insulted), it’s very true to nature and there’s no use spending five hours on a painting you can do in two. This refers to the fact that I have been painting with a palette knife because I don’t like to wash brushes.
“I have a painting that is really a cutter but Regina [Flannery’s mother] keeps saying, ‘I think you would look so much better if you had on a tie.’ This painting is of the chukar quail and they have a rather purgatorial look so maybe it will [be] somewhat suitable anyway. It is no great shakes as a painting and I have messed with the frame overmuch but…nevertheless. You can see what a marvelous painter I am…
“In the self-portrait that is not a peacock. That’s a pheasant cock. I used to raise pheasants but they got too much for me as they require attention and have to be caged. The peacocks take care of themselves. But I like very much the look of the pheasant cock. [His] horns and [his] face [is] like the Devil…like some of those devilish people and dogs in Rousseau’s paintings. The self-portrait was made ten years ago, after a very acute stage of lupus. I was taking cortisone which gives you what they call a moon-face and my hair had fallen out to a large extent from the high fever, so I [looked] pretty much like the portrait. When I painted it I didn’t look either at myself in the mirror or at the bird. I knew what we both looked like. Of course this is not exactly the way I [looked] but [it was] the way [I felt]. It’s better looked at from a distance. Nobody admires my painting much but me. It would be great to be able to paint what you wanted to paint. Can’t see, can’t do. I can only write stories.
“I like cartoons. I used to try to do them myself, sent a batch every week to the New Yorker, all rejected of course. I just couldn’t draw very well. I like the ones that are drawn well better than the situations. Daumier’s drawings kill me—but it isn’t the form, the motion or anything, just the expressions on their faces—which is far as I can get as per art.
“I also [mentioned that] I admire the animals and devils [in art]. Some of these [as I stated] remind me of Rousseau, some the Christs of Rouault. [Anyone that says] anything about Rouault not being a good religious artist [is] pure nuts. I don’t know too well how to apply the word to paintings, but what I object to in so many prayers that you read in prayer-books is that the emotion is somebody else’s fever-pitch emotion. Our emotions in the 20th century are affected by different conditions than in the 13th. I have just read a large book called Art and Reality by [Etienne] Gilson and I don’t believe the word emotion even came up in it. I admire a saying of Braque’s that he made about painting—‘I like the rule that corrects the emotion…’
“I was delighted to read the piece on Chagall. I never see the Atlantic so I would have missed it altogether and Chagall is one of my favorites. Last year I saw a television interview between Chagall and a young man from the museum of Boston I think it was—educational TV. The young man was very arty. He started out with a question about influences—very long and involved and exhibiting his own learning along the way, giving everybody including Chagall a lecture on the nature of influences on the artist. When he finally gave Chagall a chance to answer, Chagall said in the simplest way possible that his greatest influence was his mother. You see the Jewish sensitivity very well in this. It took the poor young man an instant or two to get his bearings after that.
“I went to the Cloisters twice and I particularly remember one statue that I saw there. As I remember it was about four feet high and on a pedestal. It was the Virgin holding the Christ child and both were laughing; not smiling, laughing. I’ve never seen any models of it anywhere but I was greatly taken with it and should I ever get back to the Cloisters, which is unlikely, I mean to see if it is there. Back then their religious sense was not cut off from their artistic sense.
“I’m not one to pit myself against St. Paul but when he said, ‘Let it not so much as be named among you,’ I presume he was talking about society and what goes on there and not about art. Art is not anything that goes on ‘among’ people, not the art of the novel anyway. It is something that one experiences alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence. Part of the mystery of existence is sin. When we think about the Crucifixion, we miss the point of it if we don’t think about sin.
“[Jacques] Maritain says that to produce a work of art requires the ‘constant attention of the purified mind.’ I don’t believe that you can ask an artist to be affirmative any more that you can ask him to be negative. I morally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select a negative aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be more such to select from.
“The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.
“This sermon is now ended.”’
Flannery O’Connor died August 3, 1964. She was just 39 years old.
Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery’s “The Meanest of Them Sparkled: Visual Artists Respond to Flannery O’Connor’s Fictional Universe,” will continue through August 15, 2014. The Gallery will “sponsor a reading of [Flannery O’Connor’s] work commemorating the 50th anniversary of her passing,” August 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm.