A teacher in America was recently fired for saying the word “vagina” in front of her class during a discussion about Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of flower paintings. O’Keeffe would be mad about this for two reasons: firstly, the sheer ludicrousness of her puritanical home country, where women can’t so much as mention their genitals without fear of reprisals, and secondly because people just won’t stop comparing her paintings to vaginas.
It’s a shame that one of the most skilled American painters of her generation spent the latter half of her career telling anyone who would listen that, guys, seriously, they’re just flowers; I haven’t even painted any recently. I’m more interested in bones these days – and no, they don’t represent death.
This Tate Modern retrospective attempts to right this wrong at every turn, diverting the visitor’s attention from anatomy to abstraction, labia to landscapes, sex to synaesthesia.
Many of O’Keeffe’s paintings – especially her early cubist abstractions – draw inspiration from music, attempting to lay down its emotion and passion in three dimensions. She would become obsessive about a place or a shape or a thought, painting it over and over until she felt she had conquered it, seen through it, charted its very soul. This leads to fascinating series of works such as her paintings of animal skulls and pelvises, some with majestic antlers floating over surreal landscapes, others sad and toothless. A vivid blue sky is ever-present, as much the subject of the paintings as the bones themselves.
Other times, she gets bogged down in less interesting subjects, such as her charcoal abstractions, which feel mute and lifeless compared to her oil paintings.
Throughout her career O’Keeffe’s work was defined by a sense of place, a fascination with the raw beauty of America, whether it be the drama of New York City or the immutable grandeur of her adopted home in New Mexico, with its sensuously folded mountains and canyons. Again, her obsessive streak is in evidence here, with dozens of pieces returning to the same locales, exploring their various permutations, sometimes with abstract swirls, others skirting closer to photo-realism, striving to uncover what lies behind the purely sensory.
The exhibition is punctuated by dozens of photographs by her gallerist – and, later, husband – Alfred Stieglitz. Many are of the artist herself, including a number of sensual nudes – breasts, pubic hair, hands – taken over many years, celebrating the couple’s enduring relationship. The inclusion of these candid shots adds an extra layer of warmth to the paintings, as well as providing context about O’Keeffe and the artistic circles she moved in.
And then there are her most famous – or perhaps infamous – works, the close-up flowers that O’Keeffe made from the 1920s through to the 1950s (she stopped them long before her death in 1986). There is, of course, an inevitability that flower petals will evoke images of human vaginas and vulvas and labia, after all, they serve a similar purpose (reproduction, rather than attracting bees). But even so, these ones are particularly smutty. O’Keeffe says anyone who applies a Freudian reading to her work is “projecting their own affairs” onto it – if that’s the case, my mind is in the gutter.
O’Keeffe was a liberated woman, a feminist, unashamed of the human body; to suggest there was no intentional sexual parallel seems more than a tad disingenuous. Either way, they’re astonishingly beautiful, showing the vision and mastery of brushwork, the sheer joyous drive that made her one of the most important painters of the last century.
First published in City A.M.