“It is easier for me to paint it than to write about it and I would so much rather people would look at it than read about it. I see no reason for painting anything that can be put into any other form as well”
– Georgia O’Keeffe, an American painter of nature, whose work had deep personal, feminist overtones
Painting is a language of colors and shapes. Art results when a painter, rises above a school to adopt a different, signature idiom, a way of painting that is unique to him/her, and bears his/her unmistakable stamp. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887- 1986) was one such women artist, whose work was very individualistic. This was immediately evident in his style, choice of subject (notably flowers), experiences and influences.
O’Keeffe’s work reflects a feminist mystique, a moment in American history, when women were just about beginning to find their voice and voice it! There was a kind of profound longing expressed in her work; a sort of a loneliness that someone who has lived in splendid isolation can easily relate to. When you see her sky, you get it, the loneliness and wonder, she must have felt. Yet her paintings were not deeply troubling or soul-wrenching. On the contrary, they were largely peaceful and captured the beauty of the southwestern landscape. And of course, they were bright and colourful.
Regarded as one of the leading luminaries of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe work nonetheless expresses a quiet but firm defiance of the prevailing contemporary style, rules, theory, dogma and possibility. Since there were very few women artists during her era, her work started getting interpreted largely through the prism of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s projection of her work. Stieglitz was a photographer, author, publisher, gallery owner and champion of contemporary art.
He must undoubtedly have influenced O’Keeffe’s work, just as she must left her imprint on his photography, making him appreciate nature in its many hues, while he influenced her appreciation of steel skyscrapers! It was a mutual give and take.
Yet O’Keeffe was her own woman. She was not a fierce feminist by any stretch of imagination, although she did insist on going by her maiden name and preferred men’s outfits to dainty dresses. Critics also find her work highly sexualized, although O’Keeffe always rubbished their claims.
Once, when someone asked her what story she was trying to tell through her art, O’Keeffe is reported to have said: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
O’Keeffe was extremely clear on what her work represented. Throughout her career she denied the sexual connotations ascribed to her work. Although a feminist, she maintained that her transition from abstract to objective was what may have caused such misunderstandings. She admitted her work could be reflecting some feminine qualities but she adamantly denied that those were representations of her sexual orientation.
Indeed women artists, across the centuries vulnerable to such mechanizations. Sometimes they do adopt an exaggerative style, an idiom that is markedly different from their male counterparts and leaves an unmistakable gender stamp on their work, which is not difficult to discern by critics, most often it’s attributed to them by their male critics.
Although O’Keeffe painted all kind of flowers in gigantic forms on sun-bleached desert bones. She innately followed the techniques of abstraction pioneered by modern European painters; purposefully magnifying her subjects (buildings, flowers, landscapes or bones) and simplifying their detailing in order to arrive at the essentialness of their being and to underscore the uniqueness of each.
There was a sense of poise, elegance and vitality in all her flower paintings that betrayed a deep connection with her surroundings, although she once said, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”
Artists are born to a period. That’s why, though they themselves remain moored to a specific cultural space in which they produce their work, critics interpret their work it in their own blinkered manner, ascribing meaning to it that probably the artist never meant to convey. Born at a time when definitions of social, artistic, and sexual roles were dynamically changing, O’Keeffe, Kahlo, and Carr no doubt were heirs to a late nineteenth-century crisis of cultural authority and what it meant to be a woman and a painter and the two identities were never allowed to be separated from one another.
This may also have happened with O’Keeffe also, but if we have to truly appreciate a woman artist’s work, we have to stop studying it from a narrow gendered perspective.
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