Georgia O’Keeffe: the reluctant ‘female artist’

Georgia O’Keeffe: vaginas or flowers? Whatever your interpretation, I’m sure you’ll cope – we see the latter daily, and half the population have the former.

Toria Thomson discusses the uneasy relationship between gender and art in her review of Tate Modern’s O’Keeffe exhibition

Recently I visited the Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, and Jess Baxter’s June article for TWSS came to mind. O’Keeffe as an artist, and her artwork, could be used as exhibits alongside Jess’s ‘Lecture by Every Woman Who Has Ever Been Objectified in Art’.

O’Keeffe’s success has always been attached, and made relative, to her gender. Described as the ‘mother of American modernism’, she constantly fought against the imposed identity of a ‘female artist’ whose art had erotic ‘feminine qualities’. She once exclaimed, “men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I’m one of the best painters”. Can’t we appreciate O’Keeffe’s work for its artistic value, not for its artistic value for a woman? Surely, as viewers, we don’t react to art differently depending on the gender of the artist? Is there even such a thing as ‘female’ art?

To view O’Keeffe’s work from from a gendered perspective is reductive, and her desire to distance herself from this gendering was constant and insistent. She moved from abstract to realism in both her style and subject matter to escape potential sexualised interpretations. O’Keeffe disliked the eroticised readings of her flower paintings both in the 1920s, and again in the 70s. O’Keeffe was rediscovered by feminists in the 70s who wanted to use her work, as a ‘female’ artist, as a source of empowerment. O’Keeffe declined. She also declined to participate in all-women shows. O’Keeffe was an artist, not a ‘female artist’ and she battled with this identification throughout her life.

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It is ‘Jimson Weed/ White Flower No. 1’ which is the most famous of O’Keeffe’s eroticised flower paintings. It was an interesting experience seeing such a reproduced image in reality. Both its monetary value (it sold for $44.4 million in an auction – the highest selling painting by a female artist) and its frequent interpretation of representing female genitalia had definitely obscured its artistic value. I was impressed by her intelligent use of a restricted colour palette, and how she played with the symmetrical and the organic. Perhaps most interesting was the size. O’Keeffe said of the painting, “nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time… So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what a flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it”. By using such a scale, she has succeeded in creating an uncanny effect of making the familiar unfamiliar. O’Keeffe went on to say, “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t”.

It is therefore interesting to explore what the viewer has chosen to see throughout history. To me, the constantly eroticised interpretation of ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1’ reveals a society obsessed by sex, the objectification of the female body, and its desire to retain the position of the female as muse. It’s not so much ‘what do we say about O’Keeffe’s flowers?’, but ‘what do our interpretations say about us?’.

The universal truth that art is subjective seems to have been forgotten about in the reception of O’Keeffe’s work throughout history. She commented before her 1927 exhibition that she wished it to be “so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me”. This suggests her tiredness with the over-analysed readings of her work, and demonstrates her desire to constantly subvert expectations. I’m not sure whether I would call the Tate’s Exhibition ‘vulgar’ but there is perhaps a certain vulgarity in the curator’s decision to include such a large amount of O’Keeffe’s husband’s photography (Alfred Stieglitz) – in particular the vast quantity of nude portraits he took of O’Keeffe. Whilst she may have been both a collaborative artist and subject in these photographs, it still does seem ‘pretty regressive’ (as Laura Cummings reflected in her Guardian review of the exhibition). One could see this as the dominant male gaze of art once again pushing the female back into a muse position.

That aside, this vulgar-not-so-vulgar exhibition is worth visiting for 3 reasons:

  1. The rarity of it. There are no other UK public collections of O’Keefe’s work, it is the first UK exhibition in over 20 years, and it is the largest exhibition of her work outside of America.
  2. View the most expensive painting by a female artist (‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1’)
  3. A chance to see past the erotic and gendered shadow that has been cast over O’Keeffe and discover some of her, arguably, more interesting work. I learnt there is a lot more to O’Keeffe than flowers and/or vaginas! Look out for ‘Red and Orange Streak’ which O’Keeffe created to evoke the lowing of the cows. O’Keeffe was inspired by Kandinsky and intrigued by synaesthesia (or in her words “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye”), and these influences are strongly prevalent in this beautifully deep painting.

Words & image by Toria Thomson

 

 

 

 

 

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