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Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern: Style, Feminism and Individuality

For such an iconic artist as Georgia O’Keeffe it seemed strange to me that she had never been honoured with a retrospective exhibition at a major London gallery before now. So much of her vast body of work which spans more than 7 decades is often reduced to flower drawings and the inevitable sexual connotations that have become synonymous with her work. Having studied some of O’Keeffe’s career at University I knew there was so much more to this woman and her art. For example her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz whose own photographic work had a huge impact on her style of painting. The landscape of Santa Fe which she has become so known for shows her sense of adventure and attraction to the surreal as well as the natural world. Also her sense of style throughout her life was so contemporary and unique that to look at vintage photos of her taken by Stieglitz in the 1930’s feels utterly modern and inspiring.

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The first thing that I noticed in the exhibition was O’Keeffe’s incredible use of colour in her work. From the early paintings such as ‘Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow’ (below) through to her later landscapes, the blend of soft muted pastels with bold bright colour is incredibly satisfying and sumptuous. It takes a deft palette to combine the multitude of tones and hues appearing on one canvas and her subtlety, focusing on colour and form rather than literal interpretation, is testament to this talent. As a designer, it is certainly inspirational for me to see the ways she mixed a plethora of shades and I couldn’t help be reminded of the Missoni exhibition currently on at the Fashion & Textile Museum. Here is a fashion brand known so well for their bold use of colour and print which to me touches upon the same skills O’Keeffe has in her painting – there is a lot going on but somehow it works and moreover seems effortless, natural. I often see these parallels between art and fashion showing the worlds are intrinsically linked by these common threads of form, colour and material.

 

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Her own style, away from the work, is also iconic. The handwoven shawls, the propensity for a wardrobe of black and that dramatic parson’s hat… A true reminder that individual style is always more fascinating than a series of copycat trends. Somewhat ironically Tate was selling this kind of indentikit ‘O Keefe look’ with jewellery, scarves and hats at the end of the exhibition, somewhat missing the point that her ensemble was so much a unique product of her taste, work and environment. One can take some style tips from her life though, the main one being that this was a woman unafraid to go against the grain. Part of the reason she loved the Santa Fe landscape and was so enchanted by the bones, dust and mountains was for the very contrast to the twee and predictable beauty of more conventional upstate New York. She was looking for a new vista, a new way of living and indeed a new way to create art. Her wardrobe was mostly monochrome, filled with crisp white shirts, simple, sculptural black kimonos and flat brogue shoes. This blend of the immensely practical with a fearless sense of individuality is inspiring and encouraging to think of fashion as something that is already within your personality, you just have to find the right fit for your way of life.

 

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 The floral still life images we know so well were still enchanting and verging on abstract in their detail. I also really enjoyed some of her early cityscapes of New York, showing an exciting bustling period of her young life before the Great Depression hit. More than anything I enjoyed that this exhibition took you away from the reduced cliches of her work to show a well rounded artist, a woman who had accomplished so much in her lifetime on her terms. For a woman in that (or any) era to achieve all this is inspiration enough, let alone with the style, talent and body of work she left behind too.

 

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