The artist Georgia O’Keeffe wanted to surprise people into looking properly at flowers, and the blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern shows how she did it. Guest writer Terry Stiastny goes along to stare…
Georgia O’Keeffe believed that in the modern world, too few people had the time to look at flowers. She was living in New York in the 1920s, where speed and novelty were everything, where skyscrapers were shooting up around her.
Henri Fantin-Latour – ‘Roses’ (1871)
In 1924, she saw a small flower in a still-life by the nineteenth-century French artist, Henri Fantin-Latour. Small and delicate, O’Keeffe thought, wasn’t going to work in her busy times. She could go big or go home. So she went big. ‘Big like the huge buildings going up,’ she wrote.
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait; Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 – 1946); United States; 1918; Palladium print
In a letter, the artist wrote, ‘So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers…’
At Tate Modern, you can see some of the startling results: a single dark purple petunia that makes a striking contrast with the green glass bottle that holds it; two huge oriental poppies with their dark centres and the vibrant oranges, pinks and reds of their petals; her favourite calla lilies, one in a tall glass, another against dark green foliage and a red background.
Georgia O’Keeffe – ‘Oriental Poppies’ (1927); Oil paint on canvas; 762 x 1016 mm; Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London
O’Keeffe was influenced by photography — she was married to a photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, and Ansel Adams was a friend — and she used some of their techniques to help us look in detail at her flowers. She cropped the blooms close, she blew them up to many times their natural size. As time went on, she made her flowers less abstract and more realistic, in part because she kept having to insist to critics that no, they really weren’t supposed to look rude.
Georgia O’Keeffe – ‘White Iris’ (1930); Oil on canvas; 101.6 cm x 76.2 cm; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce C. Gottwald. Photo: Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Her painting of the Jimson Weed (below), with its cool white petals and curving green leaves, evoked, she said, ‘the coolness and sweetness of the evening.’ It also became one of her greatest successes — at its time, it was the most expensive painting by a woman sold at auction.
Georgia O’Keeffe – ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1’ (1932); Oil paint on canvas; 48 x 40 inches; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London
Over fourteen years, O’Keeffe produced over two hundred flower paintings. Catch some of them — not to mention her landscapes — at Tate Modern while you can, because they’re rarely seen in this country.
Georgia O’Keeffe – ‘Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II’ (1930); Oil on canvas mounted on board; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London.
Take some time, now the seasons are turning, to look at O’Keeffe’s maple leaves in red and green and gold, painted in upstate New York, her russet apples.
And why not take a leaf out of O’Keeffe’s book in other ways? We could all take a bit more time, perhaps, to really see flowers, no matter how frantic the modern world makes us feel. We might notice something new.
The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition runs until 30 October 2016. View details at the Tate Modern site here.
Terry Stiastny is a former BBC journalist. Her debut novel, Acts of Omission, won the Paddy Power Political Fiction Book of the Year award 2015.