The Amazing, Inspirational Georgia O’Keeffe
Photography and Painting – The Alternative Realities of the Female Artist
I just finished reading the story of Georgia O’Keeffe (How Georgia became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living by Karen Karbo). What a fascinating story! What a life! I was amazed to see so many parallels to the world of female photographers. I would love to know your thoughts on this topic so do feel free to comment.
Georgia was strongly motivated by colour as many female artists and photographers seem to be, myself included. She was also influenced by modern photography as can be seen from some of her close up flower details and the unusual perspectives she takes in her work. But most interesting to me, is that she broke away from the traditional ideas in art of her male educators to achieve a uniquely female perspective of Nature.
O’Keeffe took a view that focussed on colour, line and harmony, that took in the beauty of landscapes, flowers, shells, skulls and crosses and sometimes combined them in one painting. Why was that unusual you might ask? Because at the time when she was developing her style most painters were painting in the style of the old masters i.e exactly what they saw as accurately as they could.
Idealism and Beauty
Everything Georgia O’Keeffe made was idealised and beautiful, even tough subjects like skulls from her later years in the New Mexican desert are depicted with delicacy and beauty. If you watch the videos of interviews with Georgia below you will hear her explain how she uses colour to draw them together.
So how did she get there? How did she create such innovative art at a time when women did a bit of watercolour painting as a pastime? Nearly all the art educators in the early 20th century were men and you can only imagine how easy it would be for Georgia to stick to what she was taught – imitate rather than create. But Georgia O’Keeffe was used to thinking for herself; both her mother and her grandmother had painted despite having a heavy family workload. Georgia knew from the age of twelve that she wanted to be an artist and she had that drive and relentless urge to create that saw her reinvent herself several times over her long career.
O’Keeffe was born into a society where being a female artist, never mind a landscape artist was highly unusual. She was born in 1887 and started out with abstracts in charcoal. Her black and white ‘Specials’ were seen by Alfred Stieglitz who recognised her talent and became her lifelong advocate. She mentions how, in early work, she used the shapes of favourite belongings as inspiration, see below, this seems to be like the top of a violin.
Her relationship and eventually marriage to Stieglitz, himself a revolutionary photographer, exposed her to the world of photography and propelled her to the world of fine art. She met and became friends with Ansel Adams from 1929 all the way to his death in 1985 and they shared a passion for landscapes and wild places.
Interestingly, Georgia felt she had to break away from all these influences by men to create her own vision, a female perspective of what she saw around her and her work is dramatically different from the highly detailed photography work of Adams and Stieglitz.
“Before I put brush to canvas, I question, ‘Is this mine? …Is it influenced by some idea which I have acquired from some man? …I am trying with all my skill to do a painting that is all of women, as well as all of me.”
One of my favourite Georgia flowers…..
Georgia herself had a rather unique style, she wore black most of the time and ‘tramped’ around in flat, men’s shoes, not for her the glamour of the 1920s flapper. In her latter years she became a bit of a loner, living out in New Mexico where she was drawn to the landscape. She was incredibly witty, intelligent and had a great sense of humour.
Landscape or Flowers or Abstracts? Or can we have it all?
I love photographing flowers, their intense colour is so attractive as are the simple or sometimes complex shapes. I also love working with abstracts, camera movement and extreme close ups. But, I have always had the impression that in photography one is expected to stick to one genre or the other. You can either work on botanics OR you can do landscapes but not both? I love all these genres but confess that until recently I have devalued everything other than landscapes. Why is that? Peer pressure! Take any photography magazine on the shelf in your local store and you will rarely see a flower on the cover. You will see strong, dramatic landscapes – the pages are filled with long exposures of sunsets and crashing waves, mountain-top views and sometimes wonderfully detailed, well executed macros of insects. You will rarely see a beautiful photography abstract or flower gracing the cover of a magazine and very few ‘artistic interpretations’ of a subject. Perhaps this is why I find the work of Georgia O’Keeffe so astounding; in a similar environment, surrounded by artists and photographers obsessed with detail, she succeeded in breaking wildly from tradition. She experimented in abstracts, flowers, shells, landscapes – sometimes combining them almost as if she had envisaged the power of layers in Photoshop.
She started her art exploration in abstracts but her work was not well understood. Whether that is why she took to more recognisable subjects like flowers I have yet to understand but personally I am glad she did. When I discovered her wonderful flower paintings I was entranced, they are so vivid and luxurious. Luscious greens, vibrant purples and pinks all painted on huge canvases, they are simply breathtaking. As Georgia said at one point, “..nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – and we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend, takes time”. She loved to paint really big canvases “I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it – I’ll make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers”. I have to admit I love big canvases myself and I get enormous satisfaction from printing off a really large image in bright colours.
These are some of my personal favourites of Georgia O’Keeffe flowers but do search out more….
Influences – Notan, Stieglitz and Ansel Adams
Interestingly, Georgia had strong influences in her work from Arthur Wesley Dow whose ideas were rooted in the Japanese art theories of Notan – light and dark, harmony and balance in composition.
His teachings, radical at the time were that art should not be an imitation of nature but an expression of the artist, that the creation of art is all about emotion. Japanese prints and woodcuts had a strong influence on European painters as did Photography at the end of the 19th century and I think we can see some of those influences in the work of O’Keeffe. She was married to the most influential photographer of his day, Alfred Stieglitz, himself an innovator and pioneer who did much to raise Photography into the realms of Art. Although Georgia was the subject of many of Stieglitz’ photographs I do wonder if she ever used a camera. It seems reasonable to imagine that she would have had a shot or two looking through a lens. On her trips with Ansel one can imagine them sitting round a campfire discussing their personal philosophies on light and landscape, Art and Photography. I am sure they found many parallels and they surely influenced each other.
O’Keeffe Interviews – A Rare Insight into the Mind of an Artist
Georgia had always been drawn to the desert since her early days teaching and after her divorce from Stieglitz she moved to New Mexico. In the clips below she gives us a marvellous insight into those early days which seem to have been difficult as there were no flowers and Georgia had to look for other subjects. The place was filled with skulls, crosses and dramatic mountains – she made the most of it.
I recommend watching these one after the other so grab a cup of something, sit back and enjoy!
Georgia and Landscapes – Emotion, Line and Colour
So what has the painting of landscapes, abstracts and flowers by Georgia O’Keeffe to do with my Rare Species topic?
Well, there are so many parallels. For a start Georgia had to fight her way to the top. She did have a patron which was a big help but there were very few women in Art at that time never mind Photography. She was never interested in painting people, she preferred to paint emotionally charged images of nature; she used paint to express herself. She was bold, she went out into the landscape on her own, she climbed the hillside and suffered the intense heat of the desert in order to make her art. Sound familiar? She tells how she had to rest under the car to get out of the sun. More familiar to me is her story of how windy it could be and she was worried her easel would blow away. Who among us has not been out on a fabulously windy day trying desperately to keep the tripod steady. It doesn’t matter if your hands are numb with cold and your face stinging all you can think about is getting the shot that is in your head.
Georgia saw the landscape in blocks of colours, lines and textures. Her images are not full of detail and (unlike the focus of a lot of photography nowadays) she was not obsessed with giving us a copy of nature, she was interested in giving us her emotional reaction to the subject. She was a pioneer in this way of thinking, she led the way for the post war modern styles coming into vogue in the mid 20th century. Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field painting, Neo-Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Minimalism – all artists seeking to provoke and express emotions.
Another point O’Keeffe makes that resonates with me is that the landscape is so beautiful with all it’s colours that it almost looks as if it is painted for you until you try to put it on the canvas. Wonderful words of wisdom here from Georgia that you can only paint or photograph what you see not what others see. No one can teach you how to see your image. This really is the key point. For any creation to become a successful piece of art and not just a technical masterpiece it has to stimulate emotional reactions, it has to have the personal ‘touch’ of the artist. It’s not so much about pinpoint sharpness and masses of detail but the emotional connection to the subject.
Here are a few of the landscapes I have come across so far which show how the colours combinations, shapes and lines of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work strikes a chord. Whether it is the minimal styled scenes she painted of Lake George or the striking colours of the desert they are all the result of simplification and abstraction of the details of a landscape into colours and flowing lines. In some cases, the shapes and colours of the desert are painted in combination with flowers and skulls but everything is tied together in perfect harmony.
Words of Wisdom
Finally, I would just like to offer you all a few of Georgia O’Keeffe’s words of wisdom that I found particularly inspiring…..they apply to women in photography as much as art or anywhere else.
“I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.”
“Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something.”
“Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know the flower is painted large to convey my experience with the flower – and what is my experience if it is not the color?”
“I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning, but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”