I had very high expectations about this exhibition: an artist I hadn’t come across before (and therefore all the more intriguing); a female pioneer working over a span of six decades, encompassing Modernism; a painter depicting a wide array of subjects, from abstractions to flowers. The ingredients for a successful, compelling exhibition were all there. And indeed, my expectations were not disappointed.
The major retrospective at Tate Modern on American artist Georgia O’Keeffe starts with a faithful reconstitution (even in the room lay-out and colour-scheme) of her very first exhibition, in the New York gallery ‘291’, in 1916 – exactly a century ago. The abstract works in charcoal and oil have hints of the mature Kandinsky’s. In fact, O’Keeffe was hugely influenced by the Russian artist, especially his essay ‘The Art of Spiritual Harmony’, and absorbed his keen interest in synaesthesia and the interaction of colours, sounds, and perception. Both music and paint are pursued, in O’Keeffe’s words, ‘to fill the space in a beautiful way’. What surprised and fascinated me was that she experimented with abstraction very early in her career, as opposed to reaching it gradually. Her wonderfully intense and relevant works could easily belong to the final stages of the career of an avant-garde artist, while in fact are only the beginning.
A crucial aspect rightly emphasised is her relationship with her patron and husband, as well as photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. His photographs on display complement O’Keeffe’s production, for example in the couple’s captions of New York. Another series of photos portray O’Keeffe’s more intimate moments with Stieglitz. What emerges is a personal and aesthetic exchange between the two, in some ways reminiscent of the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It is most striking to compare their works, and find that in composition, subjects and priorities they are not at all far from each other.
Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘New York, Night’ (1928-9)
Places and landscapes in general seemed to have deeply influenced O’Keeffe, as they are a dominant subject matter in her artistic production. Aside from the few cityscapes of New York, the artist was particularly fond of (and painted enthusiastically) Lake George, in New Mexico, as well as other natural locations such as Taos, Alcalde, and the so-called ‘White Place’ (Chama River valley) and ‘Black Place’ (near Ghost Ranch). Her way of describing, as well as representing, the places she visited is remarkable: ‘I wish you could see what I see out the windows – the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree-covered mesa to the west – pink and purple hills in front and the scrappy fine dull green cedars – and a feeling of much space – it is a very beautiful world.’ The colours impressed upon her soul, and she went on to impress them on the canvas. The outcomes span from paintings featuring a simple, Burnt-Sienna-coloured mountain, to others arranged in a more airy, less claustrophobic composition. I was reminded of Cezanne’s Mount Sainte Victoire by ‘My Front Yard’ (1941), for the same feeling of tranquillity and unspoilt nature they both convey. Of course, O’Keeffe’s diaphanous colours and peculiar hues are the marks of her very distinctive style.
Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘My Front Yard’ (1941)
Her interest in nature is also visible in her well-known works depicting flowers. Calla lilies, petunias and poppies are rendered with photographic realism, as she would later do with animal skulls. But flowers, as well as appreciable in their degree of detail, strike the viewer for her deep message, which goes beyond mere mimetic intent. O’Keeffe’s paintings draw the inner movements of flowers, and investigate why they move us: both in real life and in O’Keeffe’s works, flowers surprise us with their utter simplicity and humble beauty. The artist decided to paint flowers in order to make ‘even busy New Yorkers’ take time to see what she saw in them. Similarly, the visitors are encouraged to stop and marvel at her incredible works. Some art critics saw sexual or bodily connotations in her works, but O’Keeffe always tried to dispel such interpretations. What her paintings truly are is sensuous, rather than sexual, and speak of texture, rich colours, and natural perfection.
Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Petunia and Glass Bottle’ (1924)
Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1’ (1932)
The final work, ‘Sky above the clouds III’ (1963), blending abstraction and realism provides the perfect closure to the retrospective. The canvas is dominated by an array of round clouds, which could easily be an exercise in abstraction. The artwork captures the essence of O’Keeffe’s career, and the production of an insightful, pioneering, and talented painter.