Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Georgia on my mind

As soon as I heard that this year there would be a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern, I have been in a dilemma.  Increasingly crowds make me uneasy, and even angry - not comfortable in myself, and a G. O'K. show is definitely going to be a blockbuster.  On the other hand I love her work - and 'twas said that this was not going to look at her work in the usual way.  I decided that the draw of the new Switch House building, a boat trip, and the G. O'K. paintings was finally irresistible.

I have seen many O'Keeffe paintings, but not so many of the Lake George ones, and was hoping that the unconventional look at her work would mean more of them.  Of course the gallery hopes to attract as many visitors as it can, to help with the expenses of providing so much art for free, and so the same old same old carrots were dangled:
Her work commands the big bucks
O’Keeffe’s famous Jimson Weed painting sold at Sotheby’s for £28 million in 2014. It holds the record for the most expensive painting by a female artist sold at auction. (Quote from this review)

And at the same time as saying that the common interpretation of her flower paintings as erotically inspired - a misdirection created by Stieglitz her gallerist and husband - is both wrong and not the most important impression to derive from her work -- the exhibition devotes a whole room to the erotic photographs Stieglitz took of O'Keeffe.  Of course Stieglitz was a vital part of O'Keeffe's development and exposure, but I was hoping that by now, after so much other work and time to consider the oeuvre as a whole, we could have a really different approach.
I must state at this point that I have not yet read the catalogue.  On the other hand, I believe that an exhibition of this kind should make its point on its own, without having to rely on folks reading the catalogue.

Here are links to a couple of reviews of the exhibition:
The Guardian - before, and after , and the Financial Times
and an article about five artists influenced by O'Keeffe's art in Tate etc. magazine
White Barn 1 (image from here)
But the visit had definite positives for me.  There were a few of the Lake George paintings - although not White Barn 1, the full size poster of which has been above our bed for the last 26 years.  It was a present from a friend, but I have never seen the actual painting. 
One of my favourite paintings is there: Alligator Pear (image from here).  I spent a long time looking at it, and fortunately it did not attract many others.  I love the composition, and the treatment of the lower false reflection.  Like many of O'Keeffe's paintings for me it repays careful study - I can get lost in the broad landscape of something physically small.
The room which made the whole trip really worthwhile for me contained paintings from the series The Black Place.
Black Place I (image from here)
My attraction to Georgia O'Keeffe's work began years before I went to the United States in 1981, but it was while living there that I became wholly absorbed by her paintings.  Now, decades later, and with my life revolving around my own expressions, interpretations of aspects of life, I look at favourite artists with different questions.  I was wowed again by The Black Place paintings.
Black Place (image from here)
Black Place II (image from here)
The image below is taken from a Tate Etc. article My Faraway Nearby, Georgia O'Keeffe in her own words.
Black Place Green
I was pleased to find a bench where I could contemplate several of these paintings above at once, and the room to be almost empty.  I wrote these notes about my thoughts in general:

- understand why early peoples worshipped spirits of place
- all her work is a distillation
- passage of light over space, whether large (mountain range) or small (flower)
- captivated by the curve - in the wide landscape does light travel in curves? - the wind causes whipped curves
- examine the surface - the texture on the seemingly flat which captures the passage of light (as in walls especially)
- paint does not intrude, all is beautifully flat and enhances the play of light
- music not only in landscape, in the folds and curves, the light to dark to light - the exquisite subtlety and then the power of dramatic contrast
- Bacon

That very last note was the thought that one of the elements of Francis Bacon's work which I find enticing is the beautiful even smooth surface and the subtle handling of graded tone - just as in O'Keeffe's.  The materiality of the surface does not in either case distract from a direct connection with subject.

There were other exhibitions and displays with much tempting art to explore, but I have already had so much to mull over from all the recent input I did not want to overload.  Now I must concentrate on output.


  1. An interesting analysis and critique of the exhibition. I have not read any of the reviews: I tend to make a note of them and read after having been to exhibitions - it's so good to visit without preconceptions. But, I enjoyed reading your post, Olga.

    My main feeling is one of envy - the exhibition opened after we left for Greece and I will have to go almost immediately after we get back. I am really looking forward to it.

    The Black Place paintings are stunning indeed.

    Like you I am fed up with all the emphasis on Stieglitz - an exhibition of her work we saw in Rome had the same emphasis which angered and bored me - it's the fate of women artists, unfortunately.

  2. How wonderful to see Georgia's work at the Tate Modern (which I was delighted to visit in 2009). I agree with your comments re Stieglitz, and enjoyed reading this.

    We were very fortunate in Vancouver to have had a major exhibition of the art of Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and our own Emily Carr, in 2002, I think it was. Memorable and moving! An excellent book accompanied this travelling exhibition. Your post brings it all back for me.

  3. Thank you both. The Stieglitz factor is a two-edged sword. Doubtless O'K gained a great deal from being championed by him, seeing the art he showed in his gallery, and meeting the various artists. The point of view of the photographer must also have contributed. And of course she must have enjoyed the personal life until it went sour.
    On the other hand O'K was well beyond just this, and the emphasis - nay, fiction, according to the artist herself - that the flowers were erotic, may up the financial value but diminishes the true aesthetic value, I believe. And I think it is damaging to her reputation to use this old publicity stunt again and again for the same purposes.

    Eirene, I hope that you enjoy the work when you see the exhibition - I simply walked through the room with the photographs without pausing. Look out for crowds!

    Marja-Leena, it must have been fascinating to see these three artists together. I'm not sure I would have included Kahlo, but I would have loved to see Carr's paintings alongside the O'Keeffe Lake George and Canadian ones. I might have a look for the catalogue.