All right, let me be upfront about this before we wade into deep water: Every time I look at this painting, I get the distinct impression it was intended to be humorous, ironic and self-deprecating. Rather than the halo of sainthood, the penumbra behind the author’s head could well be the blazing hot Georgia summer sun, and that is no bible in her hand, brothers and sisters, but a pheasant (a game bird of the aristocracy, and not even one of her “signature” peacocks!). No way, I think, did she want future generations to pour over this happenstance bit of southern folk art (whose trademark is irony and a “dumber-than-thou” pose) as a mystical visual rendering of the author’s supposed sanctity, nor was it intended as a broad “hint-hint, look at me” that she was a candidate for sainthood.
And as far as pheasants are concerned? Pardon me, but Flannery O’Connor has sent me off on many fruitless quests for elucidations of her symbolism and metaphorical flourishes.
I’ll be dadgummed if I’m going on another wild goose chase (pardon the mixed metaphor from a lesser writer here) for the symbolic ramifications and resonance of a freaking pheasant, thank you very much. That’s what graduate students are for, as far as I am concerned (having long ago graduated from that odious state to a more elevated, serene plane of existence–sort of)
At any rate, others do not necessarily agree with me about this and want to reify the painting as an essential key to her rarefied (in their eyes) imagination.
So. To the meat of this meaty matter.
Flannery O’Connor’s literary reputation and influence, while modest during her mere 39 years of life, has grown like Topsy since her death in 1964. Her work is fierce, profound and profoundly mysterious, for her subject was faith, specifically the sudden unexpected moments of grace granted lost souls and thus the unlooked for and fleeting opportunities for redemption.
Readers of all stripes are drawn to her and want to know more, want to find the mind, the source of inspiration, the life, if you will, that produced her wholly unique novels and collections of short stories. Eventually, if they are serious and persistent, they discover a stunning self portrait that Flannery painted which bears a striking resemblance to Christ Pantocrator.
In pursuit of the meaning behind O’Connor’s blatant (or ironic lack thereof?) possession Christ-like qualities, what follows here are a few of the more fascinating, stimulating and far fetched assessments and interpretations of this painting, serious disquisitions which attempt to illuminate some of the dark corners of a major author’s genius and genesis.
It was the summer of 1953, and Flannery O’Connor had been painting.
“I am taking painting again,” she wrote at the time to friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, “but none of my paintings go over very big in this house.”
O’Connor, who was 28 years old that summer, lived in her childhood home with her mother Regina in Milledgeville, Georgia. She was already known among literary circles for her stunning and grotesque short stories, and had established herself as an up-and-coming fiction writer of national significance with the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood in 1952.
But around this time, poor health forced O’Connor to return home to Milledgeville. In 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father when she was 15 years old. Traveling became difficult for O’Connor, and she remained at home, for the most part, until she died of complications from the disease in 1964.
By the time O’Connor painted her self-portrait in 1953, lupus had already begun to take a vicious toll on her body, often leaving her swollen and in pain, and later, crippled. Critics debate the influence of O’Connor’s condition on her fiction, specifically with regards to the physical bodies of her characters, which are often deformed and distorted, if not blind or missing a limb. Physical violence and bodily discomfort permeate her written work.
In terms of O’Connor’s visual work, while subjects were easy to come by, so, too, were critics: “I painted me a self-portrait with a pheasant cock that is really a cutter [strong likeness],” she wrote to the Fitzgeralds. “But Regina keeps saying, I think you would look so much better if you had on a tie.”
Her mother’s criticism notwithstanding, over the decade that followed, O’Connor went on to mention this self-portrait in letters to friends, enclose copies of it to pen pals she had never met, and beg publishers to include it on book jackets.
According to O’Connor’s wry reports, it was not well-received — Harper’s Bazaar called it “a little stiff” and Harcourt, Brace, “a little odd.” [Hahaha. They didn't get it, either. Excuse me.]
What could explain O’Connor’s fixation on the painting?
This was far from O’Connor’s first foray into visual art, which she considered a hobby rather than a vocation. She had dabbled in printing cartoons from linoleum cuts in high school and college, where the respective school newspapers published her regular contributions. (The New Yorker, however, repeatedly rejected her submissions.) She had an unorthodox and aggressive methodology: “I have been painting with a palette knife because I don’t like to wash the brushes,” she wrote in 1953…. [more at link below]
“Flannery O’Connor continues to fascinate a wide range of readers because she offers what few if any other writers provide—i.e., vision that penetrates to the very heart of things, prose that is as straightforward as a gunshot, and characters who are unforgettable in their angularity,” Wood says. “Her writings embody a faith that is tough-minded in its theology, a grace that is searing in its judgment, and a redemption that is merciful beyond all human deserving.” …
“Flannery O’Connor is probably more popular today, more in the news, with more conferences based on her works, than when she was alive,” says Thompson…. [more at link below]
“Profundity, Nietzsche said, loves the mask. And so it will be no surprise to admirers of Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic, troubling, and highly idiosyncratic fiction to learn that there were, behind the near-perfect little rituals of violence and redemption she created, not one but several Flannery O’Connors. And how wildly they differed . . . .” [more at link below]
[Joyce Carol Oates remarks and observations (above link) are especially penetrating and worth reading.]
Notwithstanding all of the after-the-fact, erudite opinionating offered above, the life of any writer or artist is chump change for his or her work, and always fails to explain it. So for serious readers who would like to explore and savor O’Connor’s art, what she herself put most of her self into, that is her “best” self, a few helpful links:
(Library of America edition) The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor (I highly recommend this one as the notes and texts are meticulous, as is the chronology of the life.)
[A Personal Footnote to the foregoing: Regular readers of this humble blog will know of my own tortured reverence as a Catholic writer for Flannery O'Connor, the points on which we agree and the sticking points on which we don't, as in hellfire and damnation. After writing the above, it occurred to me that I too (!) had done a self-portrait a few years ago, so I dragged it out, looked it over once more, and was smacked upside the head at how vividly, albeit crudely, it rendered the divergence between us as writers. So funny. Compassion rarely entered into Flannery's crucible for fiction, while I, obviously, am often crippled by it.]
- Flannery O’Connor “My Dear God” (margaretjeanlangstaff.com)
- Flannery O’Connor prayer journal to be published (miamiherald.com)
- Flannery O’Connor: Reflections on prayer. (newyorker.com)
- UGA Press re-releasing “Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia,” other iconic books (onlineathens.com)
- Flannery O’Connor on Ready Reference (milledgeville.13wmaz.com)
- A Good Man Is Hard To Find Read by Flannery O’Connor (rsmithing.com)