Discovery of the Flower
Georgia O’Keeffe, the Mother of American Modernism
“Men put me down as the best female painter…I think I am one of the best painters,” asserted Georgia Totto O'Keeffe (1887-1986) with bolstering self-confidence over her prime position in the history of art. The way in which O'Keeffe managed to reach the pinnacle of her glory in a widely-male dominated art world worth a deeper analysis. Her 1932 work Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, was sold at a whopping prize of $44.4 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2014. An indication of her continued influence over the art scenario of our times! Nature and colors defined the media of self-expression for O'Keeffe. Her works included flowers, physical landscapes, animals, bones, etc., all of them she discovered again, through her own eyes! She painted a large number of flowers (about 10% of all her about 2000 paintings) during her carrier. It was not out of love for flowers, but for the sake of their rediscovery. She once jokingly said: “I hate flowers -- I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move”. She was interpreting herself as a woman through her paintings, in the true sense of modernism.
Budding of a Unicorn
Georgia O'Keeffe was born to a farmer couple, Francis and Ida O'Keeffe, as the second of seven childrenin Wisconsin in 1887. She was a child of nature, free and careful at the same time. At the age of 10, Georgia revealed her interest to become an artist, which got decisive support from her mother, who wanted to see her children well educated. Georgia chose art as a subject in her school days in Madison. She continued her art studies in Chicago and in New York.But her further studies came to a halt due to the problems in her family: her mother was bedridden with tuberculosis and her father's business had gone bankrupt.Georgia was forced to work as a commercial artist and an art teacher to make a living.
After four years of break, Georgia managed to continue her studies. She was deeply influenced by theinnovative ideas Arthur Wesley Dow, who introduced interpretation of subjects, rather than trying to copy or represent them as they are. It was modernism in the offing.O'Keeffeunderstood the worth of freedom and subjectivism in the art and started making abstract compositions in charcoal, making her one of the few American artists to practice pure abstraction.
Her encounter withAlfred Stieglitz, an influential art dealer in New York, was typical. Amazed by her art, he virtually stolen 10 of her drawings to exhibit them in his art gallery. O'Keeffe did not stop Stieglitz, though she did not approve of his act. Soon, she realized how deeply people like her works! In a short span of time she became known all over America as a leading artist. Their mutual admiration turned into a love affair. Stieglitz, who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe, got his wife divorced, and he and O'Keeffe got married in 1924. However, most of the times they wanted to stay apart for freedom and did not raise children. O'Keeffe, who loved solitude, sojourned through the landscapes of New Mexico, collecting rocks and bones and exploring the region’s desserts, cliffs and mountains, which later on became raw materials for her artistic creations. The couple communicated through frequent letters and O’Keeffe has written about 25,000 pages of letters to Stieglitz in her life time!
However, O’Keeffe had to pay for this separated life through her life. Stieglitz got attracted to Dorothy Norman, a young photographer, and started anew affair. In the same period, O'Keeffe also lost an important project to create a mural for Radio City Music Hall. All these pushed O'Keeffe into deep depression and nervous breakdown and had to stop painting for almost six years. The couple reunited before death as Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke in early 1946. O'Keeffe was gracious to nurse him till his death later that year.
A similar setback occurred to O'Keeffe towards the end of her life due to failing eyesight, but she was not prepared to succumb to the fate. "I can see what I want to paint," she said. She resorted to the support of an assistant and continued her works in charcoal, pastel, and pencil until 1984.O'Keeffe died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98in Santa Fe, New Mexico and her ashes were scattered over the table-mountain, Cerro Pedernal, which was the motive of about 28 of her paintings. She once said, “I painted it often enough thinking that, if I did so, God would give it to me.” She got her wish fulfilled!
O’Keeffe represented the free spirit of the day. However, she worked meticulously in an organized manner and sticking to a daily routine. Her workplace was neat and tidy and her life thoroughly organized. Even the hues she used in a particular work were according to a muster, which she had defined. Her brilliant sense of colors was combined with her ability to harmonize them with the motive of the painting. With the freedom, she pushed the boundaries of possibilities, but with discipline, she maintained a sense of stability needed for visual integrity.Her works possess a deceptive simplicity hiding sophistication, her sense of line, color and composition, which reveals the amount of training she underwent at the beginning of her career. She kept herself open to diverse streams of art as part of her training and achieved excellent mastery of the essential elements of art making: line, color, and composition. This mastery was behind the natural flow of things seen in her drawings, as an intangible aspect evidenced in the infrared photographs of her works. She rightly said: “The notion that you can make an artist overnight, that there is nothing but genius, and a dash of temperament in artistic success is a fallacy.” A true artist is made by a disciplined freedom!
O’Keeffe observed the world around closely and hungrily, in order to generate cues for her works. It was purely subjective understanding of the world, she represented in her drawings. She isolated the components that struck her and portrayed them brilliantly. Even her abstract paintings grew from the observations of nature she made. She communicated the essence of what she saw through her artworks. She said: “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis,that we get at the real meaning of things.” Her drawings demonstrate a process of distilling the natural world into abstract compositions of lines that form shapes and contours, boldly eliminating distracting details. It was a process of identifying the very essence of a given location or subject. This practice allowed her to achieve a composition that can be simultaneously abstract and true to the natural world. Her paintings of flowers were sensual close-up of them as if they are looked at through magnifying lens. O’Keeffe said: “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time”. Some even observed veiled representation of female anatomy in her paintings. O’Keeffedid not deny it either. She said: “I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.”
O’Keeffeknew that making a bad work occasionally was inevitable. It is part of any creative process. However, she experimented again and again, before arriving at a composition that make her happy. Some motives she attempted more than 20 times, before arriving at the best option. She had sufficient fortitude to follow a philosophy for her works.O’Keeffe said:“Success doesn’t come with painting one picture. It results from taking a certain definite line of action and staying with it.”Suchline of action made her the pioneer of modernism in America.
O’Keeffe brought about a paradigm shift in the art from realism to modernism. Her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes witnessed this shift. However, she was not prepared to fit into some straightjacket of styles. She also made sure that her paintings are also pretty just like in realism. However, O’Keeffe took care to add something extra to her works, by zooming or clipping. She believed that artistic expression must be the most perfect manifestation of one’s perceived truth. She managed to transcend everything or unlearn fast everything she learned during her art trainings in Chicago, New York and Virginia. She dared to develop authentic ways, unique styles and distinctive approaches in her works. O’Keeffe is said to have never signed her paintings and expected people to recognize them as her work! The authenticity of her work would keep them exceptionally unique, she believed. She said: “I know now that most people are so closely concerned with themselves that they are not aware of their own individuality. I can see myself, and it has helped me to say what I want to say in paint.” Authenticity marked the works of O’Keeffe!