1st August, 2016
I was disappointed with the exhibition of the work of American painter Georgia O’Keefe. My daughter enjoyed it but I felt the Painting selection didn't represent her well.
I had been building up to the exhibition, feeling ecstatic about its timing coinciding with our visit but there were very few flower paintings — there was a Calla Lily in a vase, three different renditions, her famous double poppy painting, fiery reds, oranges and black which was satisfying, and her famous first painting of the white convolvulus which she said she painted to monumentalise the flower and make people look more closely at their form.
Born in Wisconsin, the eldest daughter and second child in a family of seven she knew from an early age that she would be an artist. The big love of her life was her husband the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, although his inconstancy and his declaration that he did not want to have children with her, because his daughter from his first marriage developed schizophrenia and was institutionalised for the rest of her life, lead to divorce. But in the good times they supported each other’s art and sometimes worked collaboratively. He photographed her collection of bones from the desert in Santa Fe and she painted them. He also produced some of the most beautiful and sensuous black and white photos of the nude female human form in the history of modern art, photos that endure and which contributed to his fame. She was his model and his muse.
There are some brilliant artist statements in the exhibition that reveal her originality and her strong determination,
I can’t live where I want to – I can’t go where I want to – I can’t do what I want to – I can’t even say what I want to. School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to […] as that seemed to be the only thing I could do […] that was nobody’s business but my own.
And there are also some quotations taken from a biographical documentary film made towards the end of her life, when perhaps she had grown weary of the voice of the critic, that have a sharper ring. I understand, though, why she hated and rejected the term ‘woman painter’ because of the way the signifier ‘woman’ automatically implies a category separate from and inferior to ‘painter.’ She also disliked and refuted the art historical and feminist analysis of the interiors of her flowers as depictions of female genitalia, although when you view them, it’s hard not to see this. But look at what the male critics said. This from Paul Rosenthal;
Her art is gloriously female. Her great painful and ecstatic climaxes make us at last to know something the man has always wanted to know.
Georgia O’Keefe’s very good response went like this, ‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings […] they’re really talking about their own affairs.’
Perhaps I am homesick but I preferred the retrospective of New Zealand painter Rita Angus, mounted around the time of the publication of Jill Trevelyan’s magnificent biography of the artist. Rita Angus was another truly great painter, in my opinion, her still-life paintings, her landscapes and self-portraits just outstandingly brilliant and original. When you view her work you feel her fierce personality and intellect piercing her art. I think these two artists had things in common; the struggle to make it in a man’s world and be accepted into the art canon, and on a personal level they endured experiences of great emotional pain, and mental illness. When Stieglitz opened a new gallery in New York and registered it in the name of his new partner, whom he’d met when she was 22, O’Keefe became ill with psychoneurosis and was unable to paint for the next thirteen months.
I hadn’t expected Georgia O’Keefe’s palette, apart from the poppies and the black paintings of the canyons, to be restrained and pastel — pale apricot adobe architectural forms, pastel blue and lilac skies, white clouds. I liked the painting of the view from her kitchen window in Santa Fe, because it had a more intimate feeling, as though you are standing next to her looking into the pale green and pink softness of the cottonwood tree in spring.
I must be biased because as I viewed the exhibition I kept thinking of New Zealand artists and their work. There was a view down into a ravine and I thought of a similar perspective by Olivia Spencer Bower. When I looked at the black paintings I found myself thinking of Colin McCahon and his Otago landscapes and wishing to see them again. I took a photo of an early work, a half fan shape in graduating tones of soft magenta through red and purple because it reminded me of the work of Gretchen Albrecht and I got into trouble with a security person, ‘Haven’t you read the signs. No photos,’ he growled. I had read the signs and I saw another woman taking a surreptitious photo, so I thought I’d try too. This gallery policy means that sadly I can’t show any of the works here apart from the exhibition poster featuring the white convolvulus. I don’t really understand this attitude, if it denies people the opportunity to enjoy her work. When I visit galleries in Australia, I have a happy time photographing the art in the galleries, taking close ups sometimes to enjoy the brushwork. For this exhibition, I had purchased a guided commentary with headset and portable screen, so I decided to take photos of the paintings featured on the screen, balancing the device on my small handbag, which hung from my shoulder while I clicked the camera on my iphone. They’re good images but can only be used for research purposes.
After the exhibition I purchased an unusual and interesting biography of the artist, Miss O’Keefe (1992. It’s by a Costa Rican born author, Alvaro Cardona-Hine and was a collaborative project, co-written with Christine Taylor Patten, an ex-nurse who cared for Georgia O’Keefe at the end of her life. The artist lived until the age of 98 and sadly in her final years she suffered from macular degeneration, which seems a cruel condition for a person whose vocation and enjoyment of living relied on her visual senses. The biography is oddly satisfying because it is written at two removes from an autobiographical account, through the lens of the artist’s nurse and the male author, and is about a time in O’Keefe’s life when she had stopped painting and was enduring the indignities of old age.
Now I’m thinking perhaps I should return to the exhibition and reconsider because last night I read a passage by the nurse, Christine, about the hair brushing and plaiting ritual, performed in the morning and again at night for Georgia O’Keefe and found it moving. The artist wore a tight braid during the day and a looser one in bed. Initially it was trial by fire for the new carer. The artist got very impatient and angry until the technique had been mastered, calling her a fool and screaming at her but eventually they slipped into a compatible routine.
She loved to have her hair brushed. She loved the feeling of very firm strokes on her scalp, yet she would shout if there was any tangling, or pulling of her hair. It was a difficult job, for her hair was quite long and would have tangles in it since it had been braided all day or overnight.
Once Christine overheard the artist talking on the phone to a friend about her hair, “My hair has turned white, but I guess it really doesn’t matter. I can’t see it, but I reach up and feel it, and it feels pretty lively. They tell me I look good, like I have no right to look good. Everyone’s mad at me. I am a hundred and seven, I think. But, anyway, I have three more years until I’m a hundred.”
Christine also commented on the protruding bones in Georgia O’Keefe’s back. She referred to them as ‘exquisite’ and found her bony slender form in old age touchingly beautiful. Another thing that delights me about this book is the warmth and respect with which it is written and the feeling that both carer and author were working cooperatively to create something poetic, and another art work in itself, to honour the artist’s life and work.
One of the things that was important to me was this look of her back, this amazing beauty, probably because it was symbolic of her dignity. The way her flesh hung on her back like silk or satin curtains… perhaps it was that she had particularly beautiful bones as anyone who had seen Stieglitz’s photographs of her can attest. I do not wish to invade her privacy but it was so beautiful, it said so much about her because, of course, it involved the dignity of her carriage.
One of the things that O’Keefe was about was that kind of beauty in a woman. Women in their nineties allowed to be beautiful…
Christine Taylor Patten and Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Miss O’Keefe, University of New Mexico Press, 1992:22-23
I had a closer look at the exhibition catalogue overnight and discovered more warmth and colour in her work than I’d perceived in the gallery. I’m not going to use a portable headset again. I think it a distraction. Better to stand in front of the works, read the information panels and really study the work closely. As well I found this statement by Georgia O’Keefe of her desert paintings that explains her colour palette and her artistic response to the beauty of the landscape,
I wish you could see what I see out of 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 beautiful tree covered mesa to the west – pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars – and a feeling of much space - It is a very beautiful world.
Quotations from Georgia O’Keefe and Paul Rosenthal sourced from: Hannah Johnston, Tate Introductions O’Keefe, London: Tate Publishing, 2016:9,12&20.