Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are very well known and I was quite familiar with many of them, but only from books and magazine illustrations. I was not very aware of her other work (I’d seen occasional images of skull paintings) so it was a learning experience to see the full variety of her work in this exhibition.
The gallery was laid out in 13 separate rooms each looking at a specific aspect of her work from “The Early Years” to “Late Abstractions and Skyscapes”. The benefit of this was that it gave equal weight to each period, placing them all on the same level of skill and importance. To me this didn’t really work up as I found some paintings to be more appealing than others. For example I was somewhat disappointed by the flower paintings that were on display and would have liked to have seen many more of them. O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed” is the image chosen for the exhibition poster, but personally I found it flat and uninspiring. I appreciate that O’Keeffe’s intention was to make the flower image so much larger than life so that they were immediately noticeable. But I found this particular image rather limp and lifeless.
In contrast I was totally taken with one of her early oil paintings “Abstraction – White Rose” 1927. This wasn’t even in the “flowers” section of the gallery but I found it to be tray a great swirling effect from the very painterly way in which he was rendered with delicate colours used at the edges of petals to give the sense of the flower. I would have appreciated the opportunity to see more of the flower images and of how her technique developed over time. This would almost have merited an exhibition by itself.
But then one would not have seen the full range of O’Keeffe’s work and would perhaps have supported the view of her sexualised portrayal of flowers, something which O’Keeffe herself resented and dismissed as “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they are really talking about their own affairs”.
This is an aspect the exhibition covers well – dismissing the idea that O’Keeffe was simply an artist who painted sexualised images of flowers by displaying the full variety of her work – but also by explaining the influences on her, not least her husband Alfred Stieglitz the photographer who was, himself, not shy of mentioning the psychosexual aspects of O’Keeffe’s work.
Of the flower paintings on display in that room, my favourite was “Oriental Poppies” 1927 – I found the colours and composition much more interesting than the full on, flattened perspective of “Jimson Weed”. I enjoyed seeing the variety of work, it certainly taught me that O’Keeffe’s oeuvre was much wider than just flowers. I particularly liked “Nature Forms – Gaspe” 1932 which showed the mesmerising effects of an ocean storm blurring the land, sea and sky. The gallery notes describe how it “blurs the boundaries between figurative and abstract art”. Perhaps it was this aspect that appealed to me.
In a review of the exhibition in the TLS, Craig Raine describes O’Keeffe as “a hybrid of the academic painter and a commercial artist” and he concluded that in the exhibition “there are no great paintings and maybe only a handful of good pictures”.
I prefer to concentrate on what I did like about the exhibition –which is that it conveyed the full breadth and variety of the artist’s work and also of the paintings that appealed to me – interestingly none were included within Raine’s handful of good paintings”.