In the year 1908, the woman who would later be touted as the ‘Mother of American modernism’ laid down her paintbrush, declaring her dream of becoming an artist abandoned for good. Georgia O’Keeffe, then aged 21, had already demonstrated her artistic flair during a successful period of study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as New York’s Art Students League—at which she had been awarded the William Merritt Chase still-life award—but she did not believe she would be able to distinguish herself in a career as an artist. She wouldn’t paint again for four years. It’s hard to believe this now world-renowned figure came so close to resigning herself to a life of obscurity. Tate Modern’s exhibition, which features over 100 of O’Keeffe’s works, truly drives home what a monumental loss this would have been to the art world.
Today, O’Keeffe is best known for her vivid paintings of enlarged flowers, Jimson Weed/White Flower was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014 for a whopping $44.4 million. The highest price paid for an O’Keeffe piece previously stood at $6.2 million, but her other notable works include New Mexico landscapes and New York skyscrapers.
No other O’Keeffe paintings are currently on show outside of the US—with the last O’Keeffe exhibition in the UK having occurred over 20 years ago—making the Tate Modern’s major retrospective an unmissable event for any art enthusiast worthy of the name. The displayed pieces are taken from across her six most productive decades; charting the development of the artist from her early abstract experimentations, to her more mature still-life work, and featuring examples of her charcoals, oils and watercolors.
An artist deeply in tune with the natural world, who nurtured an ever-evolving fascination with the phenomenon of synaesthesia (a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense causes a subject to involuntarily experience a sensation in one or more other senses, meaning they may effectively ‘hear’ color or ‘see’ music), O’Keeffe’s works explore the relationship between form and landscape, color and composition, and utilize a musical, emotional and hyper-sensitive approach to the way in which color and form play with and against one another.
Inspired by the work of modernist photographers such as Charles Demuth, Paul Strand and John Marin (whom she met in the 1920s through her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz), O’Keeffe began to move towards creating the enlarged images of natural forms for which she is so well known, the compositions and forms of which are clearly influenced by the photographic style she so admired.
A dedicated space in the Tate’s retrospective examines the relationship between O’Keeffe and her husband, a hugely important influence upon her career. Controversial images taken by Stieglitz of his wife in the nude are on display, despite the apparent disconnect O’Keeffe felt towards them. She once remarked: “When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me — some of them more than sixty years ago — I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person — but it doesn’t matter — Stieglitz photographed her then.”
Freudian interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work have always been offered up in abundance, often unwelcomely so. She consistently, yet mostly unsuccessfully, fought against assessments of her paintings (particularly her flowers) which dwelled on sexual, specifically vaginal, imagery, both by male critics and women artists eager to discover a feminist iconography. Tate London’s retrospective aims in part to dispel clichés such as these, which have remained so persistent both during and following the artist’s life, and to allow proper reflection on the myriad influences and interpretations that can arise from her work.
Importantly, O’Keeffe may have felt that evaluations of her work as simply yonic art arouse purely from a restrictive, condescending attitude towards work produced by women. In this spirit, it’s worth remembering O’Keeffe’s famous quip as as you walk around the Tate’s exhibition: “Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.”
Georgia O’Keeffe runs at The Tate Modern from 6th July to 30th October 2016.
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG, UK, +4420 7887 8888