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Divine Architecture
Overview
The artists featured in this section, including Franz Marc, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz, have captured a sense of awe, wonder, or the mystical by observing the natural world and creating art inspired by their perceptions.

For many who follow a traditional religious path, God is the literal architect of the world. Jewish tradition offers a wealth of ritual and text guiding human connection to the natural world, and for many artists, observing and capturing the detailed complexity of the natural world in their artwork is their personal connection with the divine.
Ana Mendieta

Alfred Stieglitz
Equivalent, 1925, printed 1927. Gelatin silver print. 4 3/4 x 3 3/4 in. Collection SFMOMA, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe.

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Discussion Questions

  • What details do you notice in this tiny photograph? How does the small scale impact your viewing experience?
  • Stieglitz gives us a perspective of the sky that does not contain other reference points. How might this image be different if he included trees, a horizon line, or other details?
  • Consider the quote “Several people feel I have photographed God. May be.” Do you think this photograph captures a divine or mystical presence? Why or why not?
  • The artists in this section find inspiration in the natural world. In what kinds of places do you find inspiration? Why do you think these places inspire you?



Suggested Activities

  • Poetry and Religious Studies: Praising Nature
    Jewish tradition suggests blessings to be recited at the sight of natural wonders. For example, upon seeing impressive natural features, such as mountains or deserts, one might recite: “We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation.” Upon seeing a particularly beautiful work of nature, one would say “We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has such [beauty] in the universe.”

    Ask students to share what words or line of verse they might be inspired to say upon seeing Stieglitz’s Equivalents or seeing the sky and clouds in general. See if they can write a few sentences to express their feelings upon seeing the sky and clouds. Try this in various poetic forms, such as a Japanese haiku or a cinquain. (See below for links to instructions and resources related to haiku and cinquain poetry.) For an extension, share your work on a class blog where students can post images and comment on one another’s poetry.

    Haiku and Cinquain Resources
    http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/printouts/haiku-starter-30697.html
    http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/composing-cinquain-poems-quick-51.html
  • Art Making: Capturing an Inspiring Image
    Stieglitz’s Equivalents capture a feeling, a sensation that he describes as “chaos in the world,” equating the camera to a “wonder instrument.” Have students use a camera or smartphone to photograph an image that captures a feeling of inspiration or the divine. Then, invite them to share it with others in a multimedia exhibition inspired by Stieglitz’s work by submitting their work to The Liberating Lens.

    The Liberating Lens is a multimedia exhibition produced by the University of Michigan’s
    Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies in association with Citizen Film.



Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent
Background Information
Born to German-Jewish immigrants in 1864, Alfred Stieglitz experimented with a variety of photographic subjects and techniques throughout his artistic career. Ultimately interested in the fragmentation and disconnection caused by the pace of modern life, he sought to capture fleeting, fragmented, or ephemeral images that also reflected the subjectivity of the photographer. Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, called Equivalents, are hailed as the first completely abstract photographic works of art. Without reference points, his intimate images of clouds can induce a sense of disorientation and awe of the natural world, as well as provide a glimpse of the artist’s emotional experience at the moment the image was captured. The small scale of the photographs demands intimate scrutiny, a calculated decision by Stieglitz to enhance the work’s impact. In a letter to a friend about the Equivalents series, Stieglitz stated: “Several people feel I have photographed God. May be.”

More Media about Alfred Stieglitz →
Franz Marc

Franz Marc
Gebirge (Mountains) [formerly Landschaft (Landscape)], 1911–12. Oil on canvas. 51 1/2 x 39 3/4 in. Collection SFMOMA, gift of the Women’s Board and Friends of the Museum Photo: Ben Blackwell

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Discussion Questions

  • Let your eyes move through this painting. What “path” do they follow? Where do they ultimately focus? What techniques does Marc use to lead you to this place?
  • What do you notice about the colors in this painting? What associations do you have with these colors? In what other contexts do you know of colors being symbolic?
  • Marc believed that nature, color, and abstract forms could communicate a spiritual truth. Do you agree? What “truth” could this painting be communicating? What does this painting communicate to you?
  • Compare this artwork to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Place. How are they similar or different? Both artists depict mountains. Why do you think this subject matter might have been compelling for them? Why might mountains be seen as a spiritual or religious symbol?



Suggested Activities

  • Art Making: Symbolic Collage
    Divide students into small groups to create an abstract collage, using a code of colors or symbols that the group will create. Groups can start to plan their collage by creating their “code.” For example, they may want to determine the color red means____________, a mountain represents_______________, a triangle symbolizes________________.

    Then, create an in-class or online exhibition to invite other students to view this work and see how they interpret the coded systems.
  • Interpreting Art: Creating a Class Commentary
    Place several printouts of Gebirge in the center of large pieces of chart paper and hang them around the classroom. Ask small groups of students to spend about five minutes writing down their observations, interpretations, and questions about both the artistic and spiritual dimensions of this painting in the blank space surrounding the artwork. This activity should be done silently. After five minutes, have students walk around to look at the comments of others, then invite them to comment on the comments. Use these pages of commentary (similar to the form of the Talmud, the Jewish compilation of commentary on the Torah) to begin a class discussion about the artwork.


Franz Marc, Gebirge (Mountains)
Background Information
In 1911, Franz Marc and fellow artist Vasily Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a German group of artists who believed abstract forms and bold colors could communicate spiritual truths. Marc, a former seminarian and philosophy student, was inspired by the “back to nature” movement in early twentieth-century Germany—a response to an increasingly materialistic, secular society. Marc held a pantheistic view of nature, and was particularly interested in the godliness of animals, as well as the spiritual symbolism of color. He expressed these spiritual ideals through his painting, and famously said, “I can in no other way overcome my imperfections and the imperfections of life than by translating the meaning of my existence into the spiritual, into that which is independent of the mortal body, that is, the abstract.”

The triangular prisms in this painting evoke a jagged path through tall mountains, leading to a red sun suggestive of spiritual aspiration.
George O'Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe
Black Place I, 1944. Oil on canvas. 26 x 30 1/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, gift of Charlotte Mack. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Discussion Questions

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Discussion Questions

  • What strikes you about this painting?
  • What words would you use to describe this environment?
  • Use all of your senses to describe what it might be like to walk into this environment. What would you see, hear, smell, and feel?
  • Why do you think this place might have been so inspirational for O’Keeffe? What places inspire you? Why are they inspiring?
  • Compare this artwork to Franz Marc’s Gebirge (Mountains). How are they similar and different? Both artists depict mountains. Why do you think this subject matter might have been compelling for them? Why might mountains be seen as a spiritual or religious symbol?



Suggested Activities

  • Art Making: Abstracting Inspiration
    O’Keeffe said in 1976, “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” Ask students to choose a landscape they find inspiring. Have them photograph it (or find a photograph of an inspiring place in a magazine or online), then write down words to describe this place using all of their senses. Finally, have them use oil pastels or another art material of your choosing (collage or watercolor paint also work well) to capture the color, shapes, and feeling of the place through simplified, abstracted forms. Then create an in-class or online gallery to share their work with the rest of your school.
  • Writing: Metaphors or Similes
    O’Keeffe said about the Black Place, “as you come over the hill it looks like a mile of elephant gray hills all the same size with almost white sand at their feet.” Ask the students to share what these hills (or another inspirational landscape) remind them of. Then, ask them to compare the hills to something else by creating a series of similes or metaphors.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Place I
Background Information
The natural world served as inspiration for nearly all of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. The Black Place is a name O’Keeffe gave to an area of Navajo desert near her ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico. This desolate locale contained little of nourishment for the human body, yet provided aesthetic sustenance for O’Keeffe, as she created several paintings based on the site. She wrote about the Black Place, “Having seen it, I had to go back to paint—even in the heat of midsummer. It became one of my favorite places to work.” In this first version, the small clumps of green vegetation among the gray hills are a reminder that life exists even in the starkest environments. In theology, mountains often serve as symbols connecting earth and heaven. O’Keeffe similarly spoke of seeking to communicate a “feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill” through her painting.