‘The Habit of Art’
Flannery O’Connor, illustrator
Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
Even in 1953 when she was known as a writer—Wise Blood having been published the year before, to mixed reviews—O’Connor tried to convince Harper’s Bazaar to run her oil self-portrait with a pheasant cock, a pet whom she nicknamed “the Muse” and painted with tiny devil horns sprouting from its head to better complement her “halo” of a straw hat. (Harper’s wrote back, “Couldn’t you send us a snapshot?”) She then asked Harcourt, Brace to run the painting on the jacket of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. They told her, almost tactfully, “We don’t think it would increase the sale of the stories”—and then wrapped the book in ghastly mustard yellow and placed each title word in its own raspberry bubble.
The self-portrait with pheasant cock is the only O’Connor painting that is widely available for reproduction—and then only in a black-and-white version in which O’Connor stands in front of her painted self and tries to make her face match the one she painted. The image is striking but tells nothing of her palette. The one publication to run the painting on its own, in color, is the tiny Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, published annually by her all-brick alma mater, now called Georgia College. The colors are discordant, earthy, ugly: ochre, hunter green, brick, mouse brown. She painted the canvas in thick layers, with nothing to thin or silken the oils.
O’Connor made several paintings at Andalusia and joked that her mother had commissioned her to cover the walls of their home. Her longtime friend Robert Fitzgerald described a few: “A rooster’s angry head” glaring from the top of the steps, “simple but beautiful paintings of flowers in bowls, of cows under trees, of the Negro house under the bare trees of winter.” Little else of her oil painting is known.
What can be seen and studied, however, are the cartoons. They are a few minutes’ drive from Andalusia in the special collections of Georgia College. But the curious don’t need to make the trek to see the pictures, for the college has published them in a simple coffee-table edition, The Cartoons of Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College (www.gcsu.edu/flannerycartoons, $16.99). Only six of the 150 images have ever been published before (and those only in the college’s Bulletin). The book’s well-chosen cover image hints at the correspondence O’Connor later saw between words and images: a close-
The young O’Connor pushed her drawn and linoleum-block figures into exaggerated characters and types. There is the boy-crazy bimbo, the bookworm wallflower who says at a dance, “Oh, well, I can always be a Ph.D.,” the lanky schoolgirl beside the stout schoolgirl—and phalanxes of WAVES who look like hulking cylinders whose skirts would clank if they touched. Each figure is distorted under her busy gauge. Out of the blocks she cut Pinocchio noses, eyes popping out of heads like twin tubes (to better see passing hunks), swollen feet under meaty calves, bodies with Olive Oyl proportions, and so on. And while the cartoons are, for the most part, happy, lighthearted, effervescent—many of them silly inside jokes about assemblies and chapel—they do have this in common with her fiction: They are stark and hard, without shades of gray or shadow or crosshatching. Every frame is a severe jagged puzzle of black and white.
Like her fiction, the cartoons, with their pulled and twisted figures, are visceral, grotesque, comic. This style jars with the cutesy cartoons about spring break and other holidays—the juxtaposition seems nearly sinister—but works well when the cartoon is satirical. In one frame, O’Connor outs the artificial intellectual: One girl student says to another in an art exhibition, “I don’t like looking at these old pictures either, but it doesn’t hurt my reputation for people to think I’m a lover of fine arts.”
These early cartoons bring to mind one of O’Connor’s most famous lines about the characters in her fiction. Viewing her country through the hard lens of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, she recognized sin and could see with searing clarity, and humility, the depravity of man.