Thursday, 23 June 2016

An O'Keeffe Centenary

Georgia O'Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, copyright artist's estate.
A hundred years ago an unusual exhibition was held by photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz at 291 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Previously Stieglitz had shown work by Picasso and Matisse, as well as pioneering American artists like John Marin and Arthur Dove, but the works on display this time were by an unknown artist. They were not paintings but charcoal drawings on paper. And the artist concerned only found out that they were being exhibited when a stranger came up to her in New York and asked her, wasn't she Virginia O'Keeffe, whose work was on display at Gallery 291?

So the well-known story goes, Georgia O'Keeffe had sent the drawings to a friend in New York, who had seen fit to show them to Stieglitz, who immediately displayed them. When the artist found out she furiously demanded they be taken down (according to legend, at least), and so began a long and often rather difficult relationship between this pair of driven individuals.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Drawing VIII, 1915, Whitney Museum of Art, copyright artist's estate.
I love the immediacy and simplicity of these drawings. In 1915 O'Keeffe was in a sort of artistic limbo, having been through the whole rigmarole of training in Chicago and New York before deciding that she didn't want to be the painter she had been taught to be, ie a realist with a French accent. So she trained to be an art teacher, and while teaching and studying at Columbia College, South Carolina, met Arthur Wesley Dow, exponent of a very different way of looking at the business of making pictures. This is from his 1899 book 'Composition' (with thanks to wikipedia):

Composition ... expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded - the "putting together" of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. ... Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. ... A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies ... Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Drawing XX, 1915 National Gallery of Art (US), copyright artist's estate.
Another teacher was encouraging students to draw to different kinds of music, the aim again being to express the feelings and ideas that lay within, rather than focus on external things. Evidently stimulated by these methods, and with plenty of free time for experiment, O'Keeffe set to work. Having been a perfectly good painter of conventional subjects, she put her training aside and made compositions with charcoal that expressed something important to her. Feelings, mental images, personal visions.

It was the combination of intimacy and design that I think appealed to Stieglitz. Here was an artist working in a modern idiom, and an artist of a kind he had been particularly looking out for: a woman. With his encouragement, O'Keeffe became over the next few years a formidable modern artist. Then came the flowers...

Look out for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition this summer at Tate Modern, starts July 6.

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