Dec 15th, 2021, 01:49 PM

The Divine Feminine of Georgia O’Keeffe

By Madita Schrott
Image credit: Madita Schrott
Exploring the interpretations around O'keeffe's art

Known as one of the greatest female American artists, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have fallen under the radar of the European art scene. Whether her low exposure in museums over here is due to her protective art dealer or her feminine expression in a male-dominated art world, the Centre Pompidou is finally acknowledging the mother of American modernism in her first solo exhibition to be shown in France. 

Her close-up paintings of vibrantly blossoming flowers, often interpreted as female genitalia, is what O’Keeffe is most famous for. While these detailed flowers played a huge role in her artistic life, she can’t be limited to them as she also painted New York skyscrapers, landscapes of New Mexico, collected bones and shells, Native American dolls, and in her later years highly abstracted pieces. No matter the subject, O’Keeffe’s artworks carry an undeniable feminine energy that was clearly hanging in the air within the first step into the exhibition. Expressed through choice of color, sharp yet soft lines, and a familiar fondness for subjects others might feel neutral about, O’Keeffe possessed something her fellow male modernists didn’t: a woman's perspective on art. “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way - things that I had no words for”, O’Keeffe noted about her distinct kind of painting. Her femininity was quickly found as a weakness by critics and competitors, or at least a weak point to keep her success in check. And while she definitely drew inspiration from sexuality and anatomy, one of her favorite subjects to later paint was bones, a painting of a flower must not symbolize female genitalia just because it was painted by a woman. The sexualization of her art and her as an artist belittled her groundbreaking work and reinforced sexist stereotypes in the art world. 

The exhibition follows O’Keeffe’s artistic journey chronologically, following the artist from the beginning of her ambitious artistic education, over her isolated times in the deserts of America, to her shift away from detail and precision due to her eyesight fading. The first room, or rather two walls built within the exhibition, introduces the visitor to Georgia O’Keeffe through her early inspirations, like nude sketches by Rodin and early watercolors paintings, already hinting at her later style. Some of these early watercolor paintings are what she carried into Gallery 291, where she met Alfred Stieglitz and first convinced him of her talent. Stieglitz was an American photographer and gallerist who helped O’Keeffe up the steps of success, always holding her hand tightly. He encouraged her in her art, but also saw her as a subject in his, as he often used her as a model for his photography in a fight to appoint photography as a respected art form. Photographs by Stieglitz of O'Keeffe were being projected on the back wall, between the secluded area of her early work, introducing her to us as more than only an artist. As so many female artists stood in the shadow of their male counterparts, O’Keeffe managed to stay an individual soul next to her dominant gallerist and lover, and even outgrew him in fame, but was barely ever mentioned apart from “the man that made her”. As her gallerist, Stieglitz also kept power over her paintings for most of his life. His choices and opinions, like the one to reject the institution of museums, were made executively. While O’Keeffe’s artistic career would not have been what it was without him, the curators of the Centre Pompidou mentioned him where his name was worth mentioning, but let her and her art speak unaccompanied mostly.

Other divisions of the exhibition stood no less in support of the artist. While the exhibited pieces were brought into context and appreciated her female experience, it took a step behind on themes often related to O’Keeffe, and often needlessly so. The few things I knew about the artist before visiting the exhibition were coined by old textbooks and biased authors, male-heavy syllabi and museums that would rather show their 7th Picasso exhibition this decade than showing the pieces of a lesser-known, female artist, and it was all just sex, sex, sex. My main intention in visiting the Centre Pompidou exhibition was to see the woman, without seeing the sex. 

The painting’s Black Hills with Cedar suggestive depiction of nature captured me with sexual energy found in nature and is simultaneously mocking every critic that ever unwarrantedly sexualized her paintings. The landscape is a visual love letter to the nature of New Mexico, and yet, or maybe because of it, the black top of the hills are symmetrically rounded like breasts, the crevices and lines in the brighter bottom of the limb-like rock don’t look like water flows down them, but sweat down on legs and the bush of cedar is placed a little too intentional.  

Maybe the notice of sexual aspects in Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork is neither right nor wrong. White Birch from 1925 could depict intertwined legs, White Calico Flower, 1931 reminds of the muscular system of female breasts, and the different shades of pink pulling elongated lines within pointed, oval shapes in Oak Leaves, Pink & Gray, 1929 could be interpreted as a woman spreading her legs. While many of her close-up flowers specifically remind of female anatomy, O’Keeffe says: “I realized were I to paint the flowers so small, no one would look at them because I was unknown. So I thought I’ll make them big like the huge buildings going up. People will be startled; they’ll have to look at them - and they did.”

O'Keeffe has been oversexualized ever since the beginning of her career, she rejected all sexual interpretations but clearly planted references in her work, like painting a slimy clam as a direct response to critics calling her work too sexual. In an art world that was, and still is dominated by male artists, gallerists and critics, it is also fair to say that O’Keeffe’s work was misunderstood. A flower can remind of a woman without being sexual. Sexuality and sensuality are different things, like Oriental Poppies from 1927 made clear to me. While I saw much more than two red flowers while observing it closely, it wasn’t the curves of a woman, but rather I saw the heads of two lovers, their temples touching, the undeniable female perspective. Perhaps Georgia O’Keeffe was not necessarily misinterpreted all these years, but rather her feminine energy was not distinct enough from sexual suggestion for her male critics. The Centre Pompidou exhibited her art full of context, but free of assumptions, leaving it to the visitors to interpret what O'Keeffe's paintings are saying to them.