Rich, saturated colours and unexpected perspectives are the most striking aspects of the work presented in the new Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective at Tate Modern. Some people may not have heard of O’Keeffe. No public collection in the UK owns any of her work; to see her you must travel to the USA.
At the 100 year anniversary of her 1916 debut in New York, Tate Modern provides UK and European audiences with the biggest retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work ever to be held outside America. She is known as the ‘mother of American modernism’ and considered an important pioneer by feminist artists. For anyone interested in art, this is a must-see exhibition.
The journey begins with pencil drawings that a friend sent onto Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and prominent modern art promoter who eventually became her husband. The exhibition then flows through key phases of her work unpicking the ideas and motivations behind her paintings: synaesthesia the idea of one sense stimulating another, cityscapes, bones, flowers and landscapes. Each phase marks a change in her life or perspective, but through it all there is a sense of O’Keeffe wanting to convey her emotions and to capture the ‘American’ spirit – something that was distinct from Europe.
A highlight is the Tate’s decision to let O’Keeffe describe her reasoning and motivations. Each room begins with a quotation from O’Keeffe, enabling her personality to shine through. In Room 4, Cityscapes she says of her idea to paint New York cityscapes: “Of course, I was told it was an impossible idea – even the men hadn’t done too well with it.” She did it anyway!
Part of the rationale behind this approach is to dispel some of the myths and misinterpretations that have grown around her work. During her lifetime, critics considered her work to have sexual undertones and Freudian interpretations which frustrated O’Keeffe who was adamant that she had no such intentions. Here she is allowed to speak for herself.
You are left with the sense of a woman determined to find her own path, but frustrated by the world’s reaction to her work. What is missing is a sense time. She lived through two world wars and seems to have been completely untouched by these monumental events. The Great Depression serves only to drive her from New York city, which has lost it spark and interest.
She adores the landscape. Where Van Gogh painted huge skies pressing down on people, she paints vast landscapes that eat up the sky. There are no people anywhere in her work.
In the end, you are left with an academic understanding of her position in art history and an insight into a remarkable woman. She has an incredible mastery of colour and relentlessly challenges us to look at the world from a different perspective: paintings of the sky through the hole of a pelvic bone, or images of the sky as seen through the window of an aircraft or close ups of flowers which make us look at its components.
The myths around her work aren’t completely dispelled. Some of the sexual connotations are so obvious, it is hard to believe that such an intelligent woman did know what she was doing. Go and see what you think!
Feature Image: Oriental Poppies, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern. Oil paint on canvas, University of Minnesota.