Although last night’s moon was nearly full, as I sat outside looking at it and how beautifully big and bright it appeared in the cloudy Miami sky, I was reminded of this painting, my favorite by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon. It’s one of her later works, painted in 1958 when she was seventy-one.
In her biography of O’Keeffe, Roxanna Robinson describes this work as somewhat of a self-portrait of the artist in her later years, highlighting the transitory nature of the stage of life she was at when she painted it. She writes,
The images are all of transition: the ladder itself implies passage from one level to another; the moon is cut neatly in half by the bold slicing light, halfway between full and new; and the evening sky is in flux, still pale along the line of the horizon, shading into deep azure night at the top of the canvas.
I first saw this painting in while in high school, and then, as now, it represented something quite different to me. The theme of transition, although clearly there, was not what the painting communicated to me. It seemed then, and even more so now, to be a work about the impossibility of our desires; a painting about longing. The ladder seems to reach towards the moon, but in the process loses its footing. It is neither grounded nor reaching its destination. Yet even within that acknowledgement of the impossible, there is still a powerful beauty in this painting, from the inky darkness of the mountains and the brightness of the distant quarter moon, the work reminds me that longing and beauty are not mutually exclusive.
This painting also calls to mind the same theme of longing that is present in Italo Calvino’s short story from Cosmicomics, “The Distance from the Moon” )and it’s not simply the image of the ladder and the moon that makes me connect the two). In Calvino’s story, the love triangle (or square?) formed between Mrs. Vhd Vhd, Qfwfq, the “Deaf One,” and, of course, the moon, sets the background of a story of unrequited and impossible love and loss. In fact, the more I look at it this painting now that I have Calvino’s narrative in mind, it seems almost like an epilogue; the moon now too far for the ladder to reach, but the desire, the love, the longing, remaining. In much the same way that the “Deaf One” loses the moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd gains the moon but loses the “Deaf One,” and Qfwfq accepts that Mrs. Vhd Vhd will never be his, this painting of the floating ladder in the endless sky reinforces the idea that some things, despite how much we want them, will never be ours.
Despite the theme of longing and impossibility that I have always read into this painting, it has never struck me as a sad work. As I said above, there is a powerful and quiet beauty to this painting that reminds us that unattainability can still bring with it an appreciation of the possibilities that do remain. Like the Rolling Stones said, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need.”