As an adolescent and a young adult I admired O’Keeffe’s work. I had a large framed print of Red Poppy on my wall for many years. For some reason I don’t think I explored her work very far beyond her flower paintings and the flowing feminine forms. I probably liked the myth that her paintings were female erotica – depicting sexual parts and full of psycho-sexual messages.
So I went to the new exhibition of her work at Tate Modern (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern) today with an open mind aware that she disputed this interpretation. She said: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
I got much more out of the exhibition than this myth dispelled. Though I have to say I’m not entirely convinced. It may well be a case of she protesteth too much. Her creative and personal partnership with Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist later to become her husband, revealed that she was not an unwilling muse and nude model.
That said, her mission to make busy people take time to see what flowers really look like, as interpreted by her, is laudable and met with considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic.
I was struck by her early years: “I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white”. What a fabulous colourist she became. I started with charcoal too and am now drawn to vivid colour. I can relate to her view that: “I paint because it is a significant language for me”. Music heavily influenced her paintings as she translated music into something visible.
I knew she had done cityscapes in New York in the 1920s but hadn’t paid too much attention to them although I’d always admired the New York Street with Moon print that hangs in the Blackheath home of a friend of mine. Seeing a few of them together was impressive. She painted from heights and interesting vistas. They seem utopian, dramatic and monumental.
I was also aware of her skull paintings but wasn’t aware she had done other aspects of the human skeleton. I was really taken by two paintings of pelvic bones. Her concentration was on the sky beyond showing through the holes in the bones. The intense blue of the holes against the creamy white bones are amazing. The paintings look really abstract but they are not. She just shifted her gaze from the object to the spaces. I loved the way she had turned to bones: “..in New Mexico…there was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones.” I didn’t expect to see my personal fascination with holes and pierced forms being stirred by her work.
I shall visit this exhibition again to take time to dwell longer on the things that I picked up and maybe to find some more revelations and insights. And probably to wonder further whether her forms really do represent female sexual organs!
Georgia O’Keeffe is one lady well worth re-visiting and looking at anew.
Promise I’ll write about a man next…maybe..