A visit with Georgia O’Keefe’s Jack-in-the Pulpit paintings #2, 4, 5, 6 East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
I’ve made a special trip here today to see O’Keefe’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit #4 painting. I’m here to complete my “Echphrastic” poetry assignment from a compelling writing workshop the night before. I’d chosen a print of that painting from the rich selection that our poet-teacher, Adele Steiner Brown, had provided as possible inspiration for creating a poem. I was immediately drawn in by the print’s vibrant colors and organic luminosity.
I’d compiled an extensive litany of descriptions and inner evocations in the time we had. Unlike my eight fellow students in the workshop, I didn’t leave with a finished poem in hand. Other participants had chosen other prints, and one had even created a masterful, bluesy poem to the memory of a Duke Ellington – Ella Fitzgerald jazz classic. I was amazed and impressed by the creatively unselfconscious poems that each of my mates had written and shared aloud with our group. At my turn, I read part of my litany and promised to keep working with it.
So here I stand in a well-lit gallery of 20th century American masters and gaze to my heart’s content at four of O’Keefe’s “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” flower portraits, adjacently hung, and occupying an entire wall. I’ve had to wait a while for a grade-school class, plopped on the floor in front of the four paintings, as a teacher excitedly explained: “She started with the whole flower and then got closer and closer to paint its most intimate insides.”
I’m grateful for the teacher’s enthusiasm and I approach the paintings now with her observation in mind.
The first of the displayed paintings is actually #2 it turns out. I’ve already studied this painting on the back of the reopened East Building’s new brochure. Gazing at the full scale original quickly elicits a deeper appreciation.
The dark purple and reddish interior is met by white stalks climbing up the central petal. “Jack” himself stands grounded and secure, ensconced within a deeply feminine rootedness.
Transcendent whitish-blue light illuminates the whole vibrant flow of the painting. This is certainly a flower with great vitality and beauty and mystery and…the stalkiness of cabbage.
Multifarious shades of green leaves surround the flower above and below, implying its rootedness within a greater sea of Green.
The muted scarlet surrounding Jack contributes to his realm of mysterious vitality.
Entry into the flower at this level is a manifest mystery of beauty and holy enshrinement.
Luminescent white light streams from Jack’s head, illuminating a black leaf with green leaves above it.
Stepping even closer, one detects a fine glowing violet light surrounding Jack’s dark blue, rounded stalk. His core of lighter blue arises from his base at the bottom.
The white filament of light emanating from Jack’s head is potently penetrating, an expression of phallic, ejaculatory generativity. It is the Life Force at its most refined AND its most vigorous.
Bluish white in the four corners encase the whole image in mystery and otherness.
Jack-in-the Pulpit #5
I am perplexed by #5 for a long time. Finally, I release my need to figure it out and let myself be drawn in by the vibrancy of its swirling scarlet-purple leaves, its white stalks, and its luminescent greens. Part of it looks like a candy cane maypole. I’m captured by the exquisite violets and purples against the bright green and white.
Inside the plant, but emanating out, the central deep purple stalk spirals up to the light.
Jack-in-the Pulpit #6
The last in the series is Jack up closest. He’s more elongated than in the previous versions, white at his base, turning grey, and then black at his rounded tip.
Purple drapes on either side appear to open to a long deep cavern. The white streaming now almost surrounds Jack entirely. The feeling is that of the highly sacred and the reverential.
This Jack is standing within a cavern that leads to infinite spaciousness and fullness of light. Musical strands from Kubrick’s film “2001, A Space Odyssey” play through my head, the point of full creation and the rise to awareness of that creation.
My Echphrastic Poem
With my viewing “homework” completed, I returned to the task of composing a poem based on Jack #4. Here’s what I came up with.
Out of the Heart of a Flower
From deep, dark inside
Streams a filament of white light
Emanating from a glowing blue bulb.
Soft purple hues surround
The effusion, becoming pinkish toward the center.
The sacred dark enclosure
Is the flower’s womb.
Jack streams forth his pure, pulsating illumination,
Propelling an act of creation,
The primordial seeding of
Feminine by Masculine.
Spewing a white beacon of pure light
That irrigates and nourishes
Verdant growth, rivers, landscape.
John Bayerl, Isabela, PR; 2/23/2017