Udall, Chapter 2: “The Natural Self: The Body and Nature”

by chunte4

Khalo, Carr, and O’Keef each have their own unique, nuanced interpretations of nature, yet all three link nature to femininity. The resulting images from each artist therefore contain very different, yet compelling expressions of their psychological links with the natural world that diverge significantly from traditional ideas regarding a woman’s spiritual connection with the environment. Udall writes that “the distant past has provided several models…if for example, a society saw itself as rooted in nature…the status of women in that society as birthgivers was likely to be high. ..If however, if emphasis was placed on abstract values ascribed to male-dominated mastery of nature, the women were accorded a lower value.” (81) While Khalo especially did incorporate some of the traditional mythology into her work, all three artists created a more personal narratives specific to their own experiences. Khalo for example, combines significant moments from her life, Aztec mythology, and sometimes includes certain aspects of Freudian theory that heavily inform her use of goddess imagery. In Love Embrace of the Universe: The Earth (Mexico), Diego, and Senor Xolotl, Frida depicts herself as being held by the mother Earth who she painted to look like the Earth goddess Cihuacoatl from Aztec mythology as a homage to the myth in which said Earth goddess bleeds and breaks apart, releasing new forms of life. Frida, in turn, holds an infantilized Diego in a gesture that applies the universal notion of motherhood to her own life and relationships. She also challenges Freud’s notion that ” an advance in intellectuality” would “consists…in deciding that paternity is more important than maternity” (pg. 85) by portraying the Earth, who in this case is the creator of all things, as female.

Carr, often incorporated the eye as a symbol for the omnipresence of nature in her life. Her paintings of forests and general landscapes often contained a hidden eye which could represent either “the…projection of the human essence onto the forest,” “the eye’s centrality as chief external supplier of sensation to the body,”  or a “primary emblem of the Great Goddess.” (104) Carr places herself within nature but does not experience it from a motherly “birthgiver” perspective, but instead uses nature imagery to articulate her own spirituality, a sense of power and a feeling of belonging she could only find in untamed spaces absent of people.

For O’Keef, scenes of nature functioned as a way of communicating with others in a way she could only do through art. In paintings such as  The Old Maple, Lake George, O’Keef imbues her subject with an expressive, animated energy that seems almost human in its articulation. Udall writes that “trees offered O’Keef a way of portraying individuals and her relationships with them.” (pg. 129) With her tree paintings, O’Keef could express the dynamics of her real life relationships as well as create a world in which she can interact with others without the fear of miscommunication. O’Keef, perhaps even moreso than Khalo or Carr, used nature to create a safe space for her in which she could express herself without restraints.