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Stefanie Jackson, Bluest Eye

Stefanie Jackson's painting "The Bluest Eye" explores themes of beauty, ugliness, and cultural history. Inspired by Toni Morrison's novel, the artwork features surreal elements and references to African-American culture. The painting portrays the impact of societal views on young black girls, highlighting the struggle between innocence and adult violence. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(romantic music) - [Male Speaker 1] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at a painting called the "Bluest Eye" by Stefanie Jackson, faculty member at the University of Georgia here in Athens. - [Male Speaker 2] Professor Jackson's work has always been fascinating to me because there's always this surrealist tinge with all these cultural references to novels, to history, and this is an example of one of those types of paintings. - [Male Speaker 1] And this does reference Toni Morrison's debut novel from 1970, "The Bluest Eye". This was a novel that was set in Morrison's own hometown in Ohio. And the two figures that we see are presumably the two main figures in the novel. - [Male Speaker 2] The figure to the left has one blue eye and one brown eye. Her face looks like a mask. You can see where the mask would attach to the top of the head. You can see the little holes, so her skin in a ghoulish way, is attached to her face. - [Male Speaker 1] But the ghoulishness of these figures has been imposed on them, the result of violence, of bigotry, of hatred. And so, this painting, and I think the novel, is concerned with this collision between innocence and adult violence. - [Male Speaker 2] The other figure looks almost like a Shirley Temple type with blonde, curly hair, and she holds a doll. But then you see these hands that are disconnected from a body with these long fingers that look rather garish. It's kind of scary. - [Male Speaker 1] And the way in which they're cropped by the edge of the canvas seems to echo the way in which the young girl on the left's right hand has been severed. - [Male Speaker 2] And when you look at the way that the hand is severed, it's still holding a piece of hair, but you can see that the artist has a streak that comes down that does connote the whole idea of blood and disembodiment. - [Male Speaker 1] She wears a light dress that exposes her right breast in a way that suggests perhaps an adult's view of her body. - [Male Speaker 2] So it's almost like a blooming sexuality. If you look at the sunflowers around her, this whole idea of fecundity or fertility that's emerging in contrast to if you look at her arms and her wrists, they almost have a little heaviness or muscularity of an older individual, much like the hands that you see to the right. - [Male Speaker 1] The novel, and I think this painting also, contrasts ideas of beauty and ugliness. We see this young girl, and there's beauty in those eyes. But that mask-like face is cracked. It's been so disfigured, and yet we're surrounded by those beautiful luminous sunflowers. - [Male Speaker 2] And the sunflowers surround her head in a decorative manner in much the same way that the ribbons on the tips of her braids frame her face. I think it's also interesting that the petals of the flowers mimic the curvature of her hair. So, there's this the whole idea of natural beauty that's somehow distorted. - [Male Speaker 1] And look how the petals of the right most sunflower dissolve against her hair so that they become translucent, so that we can see through to her hair. And that's something that the artist does in a number of places in this painting. If you look at the corner of the table, it becomes oddly translucent so that we can see the tiles of the floor through it. - [Male Speaker 2] And there is this surrealistic call because you realize that the figure is both inside and outside. There's this part of her that's in nature that's outside of the house, but then there's the other part that's inside of a kitchen. There's even a visual connection to popular culture. If you look at the cup and saucer, you can see this mirrored image of what looks like an outline of a brown face with a red hat, with a tassel on it. And that immediately brings to mind the Banania brand of a popular chocolate drink that showed kind of caricatured way, an African grinning man. And then even if you look above at the four figures in the background, they also resemble another racist trope, the mammy figure, a corpulent, black woman who was a slave and who was proud to serve. - [Male Speaker 1] And what we're seeing I think is the physical, but also the psychic violence that that does to especially children who grow up in that kind of environment. And it's so interesting that what we're seeing here is a focus on young black girls. In the long history of art, how often has that been a subject? - [Male Speaker 2] And I think it's interesting that the artist and the novelist, Toni Morrison, are African-American women who are trying to change that narrative and repossess the representation of black women or black girls in this sense, who would become women, in a painting like this and the references that are being suggested. (bright music)