West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Report of the Special Interest Morning
led by Richard Cupidi
on July 9th
Alfred Stieglitz Georgia
O'Keeffe: a Portrait (1918)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
©The J. Paul Getty Trust
The morning incorporated two lectures by Richard
Cupidi, a well-known art lecturer with a special interest in O’Keeffe
and her work. May I say what an engaging presenter I found Mr
Cupidi to be; personable, enthusiastic, highly knowledgeable of his
subject and he even managed to persuade the audience to participate!
The current retrospective exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work at Tate
Modern is the first time in 25 years that it has been seen in the
UK. This must beg the question of why such an influential artist
in the USA is so little known over here. There is not a single
piece of her work on permanent display in any UK Gallery or
Museum. Richard suggested that this might be because she was a
female artist, and indeed there is little doubt that she would have
been much better known had she been male.
The initial impact of O’Keeffe’s work is certainly her use of
colour. Whilst some of her work verges on the abstract, yet the
vibrancy of her colour and the evidence of her work being personal is
evident. She was clearly an independent spirit, not influenced by
any particular artist or style of painting.
It was pointed out to us in viewing Evening
Star No II that O’Keeffe used no lines in her work – rather
blocks of colour. She was misrepresented by art critics of
sexuality in her painting of flowers – during a period when Freudian
interpretation was in vogue. When Music Pink and Blue was shown, she
opined that music and colour are indistinguishable. One of my
favourite paintings of this period was Red
Streak of the Texas plains, in which everything was alive.
At about this time, in New York, Alfred Stieglitz, who owned the 291
Gallery, was sent by a friend examples of O’Keeffe’s watercolours which he
exhibited. When she heard, Georgia O’Keefe travelled to New York
and insisted that her work be removed, as she had not consented to the
exhibition. Stieglitz pleaded with her, and she finally agreed to
them remaining on show. From this point, an affair between the
pair commenced and they married in 1924.
New York proved an inspiration for O’Keeffe, and several paintings of
landscapes of skyscrapers followed, notably City Night. Interestingly,
people were rarely seen in her work, apart from four angels at the top
of a skyscraper.
Colours in her paintings of flowers were ever present,
but she would
blow up the same subject in order to increase the scale and intensity
of poppies, irises and famously Jimson weed, of which several versions
were painted, one an enormous canvas, all demonstrating almost balletic
We broke for coffee and
this point, with an instruction from Richard to go outside for a few
minutes to examine colours!
Weed / White Flower No. 1 (1932)
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA
Photography by Edward C. Robison III
© 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London
The second lecture commenced with a view of six
paintings in the Jack-in-the-Pulpit
O’Keeffe. These started with a realistic depiction of the flower,
which then became more abstract with each subsequent representation –
distilling the flower’s essence.
The next phase of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was in New Mexico, where she
would spend three months of the year until her husband died, when she
moved there permanently. The paintings of the New Mexican
landscapes show an even greater intensity of colour, and great detail
which glowed – this is referred to as “magical realism”. As she
was able to see for miles, she called the land “the faraway”, where she
considered the sky, the stars, the wind as all being different. The Mountain, New Mexico
demonstrates the magical realism, with its fluidity and use of colour,
resembling muscles and sinews, and its sense of vision.
I had no idea that D H Lawrence was living in New Mexico at this time,
but O’Keeffe was a friend of his, and painted The Lawrence Tree from beneath
it (she lay on a table), with a moonlit sky above. Its
structure might have been interpreted differently – some of the
audience thought that it resembled a squid or octopus.
Next came a painting of a Cow’s Skull,
with an interpretation of the continuity of life and death and a
suggestion of a crucifixion, and later a Ram’s Skull with a vivid
flower alongside – possibly a Morning Glory with a bright sun-like
centre. May there have been a God-like quality in these?
Intense criticism from critics led to O’Keeffe having a nervous
breakdown, and she failed to paint for 3 years, but then returned to
New Mexico and the desert, where the natural world inspired her again.
Her images of skulls were continued with From the Faraway Nearby, with the
surrealistic number of horns and a far landscape. It might
suggest a mental unrest, but that is conjecture on my part.
Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II (1930)
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation ©Georgia
In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Georgia
O’Keeffe’s work –
the first retrospective accorded to a woman by the MOMA. In 2014,
her Jimson Weed White Flower No 1 was sold for $44million.
In conclusion, I found O’Keeffe’s work fascinating, and much of it had
a spiritual quality, in particular the New Mexico paintings. One
cannot overemphasise her dramatic use of colour.
My thanks to Gwen and Liz for organising the lecture, and to Richard
Cupidi for his excellent presentation.
Related Links (open in new windows):
Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Our erudite and entertaining lecturer, Richard Cupidi