Anticipation gives way to excitement before going to see any exhibition as all sorts of thoughts rush through my head.
Which artworks are going to be on display?
Just how big are my favourite paintings? Will they be as impressive as the images in my head?
How will they be displayed? Will each work of art have its own wall, or will they be clumped together?
My feelings were no different on entering the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. There are no Georgia O’Keeffe’s works in any British collection, so this is an exciting opportunity to see a major collection of her work all in one place.
I have loved O’Keeffe’s work ever since I studied her back when I was doing my A-levels – Oooo, it must be 17/18 years ago now. Unlike the famous flower canvases that she is renowned for, I came across her when doing a project on Cityscapes, falling in love with her Manhattan skylines. I also visited New York around the same time and recreated some of her cityscapes in soft pastel, my preferred medium at the time.
I was delighted to find one of the 13 galleries early on in the exhibition dedicated to her New York works, with three of her stunning portrait towering skyscraper canvases adorning one wall. I was gutted not to see my two favourites “Radiator Building, Night New York, 1927” and “The Shelton with Sunspots, 1926”, but the others were all I’d dreamed they would be.
On entering the exhibition you’re given a booklet of information which gives excellent succinct information about her life and the works on show. It’s the same information that is displayed on wall boards in the exhibition, and is great for revisiting at a later date.
Georgia O’Keeffe is widely recognised as a foundational figure within the history of modernism in the U.S. and became an American icon. The Tate’s exhibition revisits the 6 most productive decades of her work: the 1910’s to the 1960’s. The first showing of her work was at Alfred Steiglitz’s New York gallery “291” in 1916, so this exhibition celebrates a century of O’Keeffe and aims to dispel the clichés that persist about her painting.
The first few rooms in the exhibition clock O’Keeffe’s early work, initially in charcoal; work that brought her to the attention of Alfred Steiglitz, renowned photographer of the ‘progressive era’. She had a personal as well as a professional relationship with him, the pair eventually getting married. The exhibition shows works of Steiglitz’s here as his work often influenced hers.
O’Keeffe turned to greater abstraction in the 1920’s taking inspiration from the landscape and an interest in synaesthesia – the stimulation of one sense by another: “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye.” These compositions often contained suggestive shapes of the female form and hinted at erotic content and phallic symbols. This view of her work frustrated O’Keeffe and she is recorded as saying: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
During the period when O’Keeffe and Steiglitz lived in New York City on the 30th floor of a skyscraper, it was visits to rural upstate New York, to Lake George where the Steiglitz family had a summer home that brought O’Keeffe’s attention back to nature. The years she spent summering at Lake George became the most prolific of her career. It was here where she found the subjects that brought her widespread critical acclaim. From the hill overlooking the lake and surrounding gardens, orchards and woods, she found the flowers, trees, leaves, skies and landscapes that dominate her output through the 1920’s.
It was her treatment of these conventional subjects that brought her to the forefront – the application of abstraction, the bold use of colour and the modern treatment of composition which saw magnificent flowers billowing out across and beyond the canvas edges. Two of her most famous flower paintings are here in the exhibition: “Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1” and “Oriental Poppies.”
O’Keeffe developed her once abstract flower paintings into close up work with greater realism, focusing on the flower blooms themselves. This she did as a means of dispelling the erotic interpretations of her work that critics had established.
One thing I knew about Georgia O’Keeffe before my visit to the Tate exhibition was that she lived a great proportion of her life in New Mexico. However I did not know anything about the types of painting she moved to do once under the influence of the American Southwest. The rest of the exhibition concentrates on the subject matters directly influenced by New Mexico from the bones of the desert (there were few flowers) which were easy to find and collect to mountain vistas, particularly the mesa (wide topped hill) viewed from the house she bought on Ghost Ranch in 1940, as seen in the painting she called “My Front Yard, Summer 1941” This subject she painted in all sorts of manners and colour schemes joking: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me…God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.”
Another mountain subject O’Keeffe painted again and again was known as the “Black Place” which was 150 miles west of her home at Ghost Ranch and on discovering it she insisted on returning to paint it. Even in the blisteringly hot summers it quickly become one of her favourite places to paint. In the “Black Place” series of paintings displayed in the Tate’s exhibition it shows how she progressively abstracted from observed reality to more intensely coloured non-naturalistic compositions which she painted from memory – from “Black Place 1” in 1944 to “Black Place Green” in 1949.
Gallery 11 displays 3 different series of paintings made in 1940’s and 50’s. Particularly striking though I’m not sure I personally like them is the Pelvis series painted in the 1940’s. Working in series was now the approach that O’Keeffe applied to her work and it seems that her work was edging nearer and nearer to abstraction once again, in parallel with developments in American abstract painting. Moving from skull bones to pelvic bones, O’Keeffe was most interested in the holes in the bones and what she could see through them, rather than the bones themselves. In the wake of World War II O’Keeffe painted a series of pelvic bones held against a blue sky saying: “they were most beautiful against the Blue – that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.” One even featured the Ghost Ranch mesa. I preferred the Cottonwood series of trees which are much like the early flower abstractions.
The final room of the exhibition shows O’Keeffe’s late paintings of the 1950’s and 60’s. There are works which resemble aerial views of rivers, but the eye is drawn to the painting “Sky Above the Clouds III” which represents the view looking down on clouds taken from a plane. It seems a fitting way to finish the exhibition: not only does her work move in a full circle from abstraction, back to abstraction (granted of a different style), but the views from a plane seem to distance the viewer once again from her work. We were geographically distant from O’Keeffe’s work before the exhibition due to no paintings of hers residing in the UK; then our journey through the exhibition pulls you in for a full exploration of her life and work. You really feel like you’ve gotten to grips with her connection to the landscape, like you’re really in New Mexico, so that the view from the plane is you flying home, in parallel with the works physically flying home from London to their original collections after the exhibition. Most of the works originate in the U.S.A. and many from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico: a place I would just love to visit, even more so after Tate Modern’s excellent exhibition.
The exhibition is on till the 30th October 2016 and I really recommend going if you know of her work – like me, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the extent of subject matters she painted. Hope you enjoy it and please leave your comments on the exhibition below – I’d love to hear your views!