The first thing I see as I enter the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Fondazione Roma is a quote from O’Keeffe herself, displayed strikingly against an otherwise plain white wall: ‘Women don’t make good painters, they said,’ are her words. ‘I had never thought of it that way. I just painted, that was all.’
They are interesting words, coming from one of the most important modernist artists of the twentieth century. It appears very unlikely to me, after spending time at the exhibition, that anyone would get away with telling Georgia O’Keeffe that women shouldn’t paint.
O’Keeffe did not ‘just paint’, of course: she sketched, and took photographs, and the display at the Fondazione Roma shows all of this, as well as providing a wealth of illuminating biographical information. Displaying the contrasts of O’Keeffe’s early work (charcoal, abstract) against her busy period in New York (the move to watercolour, realist, ‘almost photographic’, where the influence of the city is clear) against the bold colours and faded edges of her New Mexico paintings, this exhibition provides a whistle-stop tour of the life and work of an undoubtedly multi-talented artist, without ever losing its substance.
My review will start at the beginning of O’Keeffe’s career, in 1915, when she was working at Columbia College in South Carolina. It was here that she abandoned the use of colour in her work, in order that it could not imitate reality. This decision set her apart from her contemporaries from the outset –American artists of the period were almost exclusively realist. Works displayed here include charcoal ‘Abstraction with curve and circle’ (1916), where an eye can possibly be seen peering from beneath the sweeping lines. ‘Tent door at night’ (1916), without its title, would remain a mystery to many. A watercolour abstraction, it depicts triangular shapes intersecting. Without explanation, the viewer would never know that it depicts what O’Keeffe saw, in 1916 in Virginia, as she watched the night from behind the folds of her tent. Being an abstraction, it is likely that this is exactly what O’Keeffe planned. Details follow of how she came to know her future husband Alfred Stieglitz, how he put on an exhibition of her work in New York, effectively launching her career, and how he invited her to the city to live in 1918.
The Nude Series, her photographic self-portraits from 1917, are semi-abstractions and pre-figure later work by Stieglitz. ‘Torso’, his photograph of 1931, when they had been married for seven years, sees a nude O’Keeffe lying horizontal, her head out of sight off the edge of the lens. Georgia O’Keeffe as the nude subject would have a negative impact artistically. After Stieglitz exhibited his nudes in 1921, myths abounded about O’Keeffe’s own art. When she exhibited in 1923, critics would view her work only through an erotic lens –seeing sensual imagery where O’Keeffe had meant there to be none. It caused her to abandon abstraction as an expression of herself; she would not return to these roots for a number of years.
The influence O’Keeffe had on Stieglitz is seen in her ‘Evening Star no. VI’ (1917), which hangs next to his ‘Equivalents’ (1927). Hers is an abstract of a yellow star a dark blue Texas sky; his, a photograph of the night, black with clouds. The presentation of this first room, displaying O’Keeffe’s New York period, consciously echoes the city at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jazz music plays; there is a row of mock shops down one side of the room, including one with the sign ‘291 Fifth Avenue’, the location of Stieglitz’s first gallery, where O’Keeffe first saw works by Picasso and Matisse. The opposite wall is household scenes: a table with flowers, a bookshelf, a chair set up for reading underneath a lamp.
The next room, with a lake mural depicting the atmosphere of Stieglitz’s house at Lake George, New York, offers abstractions of the lake itself. Her realism is immediately contrasted to this, with the vivid colours of ‘Calla Lillies’ (1924), ‘Purple Petunias’ (1925) and ‘Calla Lily’ (1927). Realism and abstraction came together afterwards in ‘Alligator Pear’ (1923), where the shadow refuses to fit the shape of the fruit. In breaking the conventional rules that should be followed, the shadow renders the painting abstract. An interest in architecture is shown in ‘New York street with moon’ (1925), which reflects the changing landscape of the 1920s city – skyscrapers overtaking smaller buildings; a traffic light dwarfed by the semi-abstract brown building that looms behind it.
By 1929 O’Keeffe had lived on the east coast for eleven years and had taken all the inspiration she could from it. She returned to New Mexico in 1929, but would not live there for another twenty years. Her work takes on an organic form, in contrast to her earlier interest in architecture. Exaggerated colours and flowers characterise this New Mexico work. After walking through a desert-like tunnel, the exhibition offers an unexpected surprise – paintings of animal bones, decorated florally; a representation, for O’Keeffe, of the New Mexico desert, which was permanently alive. The exhibition ends with a film encompassing the entire spectrum of O’Keeffe’s career, and a mock-up of a New Mexico inspired room –her studio, where she worked until her retirement.
O’Keeffe, after beginning to lose her sight in 1972, died in Santa Fe in 1986. Santa Fe is now the home of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the only museum in the US dedicated to the work of a twentieth century female painter. Museum President Emanuele F.M. Emanuele says that, ‘This event demonstrates how art can be an exceptional instrument if we wish to experience reality and new languages, the fruit of experiences that can geographically come from far away, as compared to our own land, to travel in the spirit with no barriers set before us, to go where the search for the beauty and the harmony in the human soul can bring a sense of complete fulfilment.’
The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition will be showing at the Fondazione Roma, Via del Corso, until 22nd January 2012, before moving on to Munich and Helsinki. The exhibition is in collaboration with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
By Lucy Miller
- Letter: O’Keeffe Unbrushed (nytimes.com)