Having recently read a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was keen to see this exhibition, even though it meant spending time at my least favourite gallery. I don’t know what it is about Tate Modern, but I just don’t like it – although it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that it has a fine collection of modern and contemporary art. The collection does suit the building very well.
Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her flower pictures, large canvases filled to the brim with one or two oversized, highly detailed blooms. However, there is so much more to O’Keeffe’s output that this, that it seems almost unfair to concede that these works are what she is best remembered for. The exhibition shows artworks, including charcoals, drawings and oils, spanning the entirety of her career and some of these lesser known pieces are as breath-taking as her best known work.
One of her most popular flower pictures (and the one advertising the exhibition) is Jimsonweed. Delicately painted in shades of green and white, the sheer size of the canvas – and consequently, the scale of the flower – is overwhelming. The eye is pulled into the centre of the bloom and it is quite hard to resist a forward lurch as you follow suit. It is a gorgeous picture, but no reproduction can ever do justice to the sheer scale of what you see. It is genuinely stunning.
The idea of filling a canvas with a single image was one that O’Keeffe got from her friend Paul Strand, a photographer who experimented with scale and framing. She did not limit the technique to flowers, however, and her well known clamshell paintings (of which only a few are displayed) are delicate symphonies in shades of white, demonstrating her technical skills and eye for subtle colour work. To see an object which, in reality, is only about an inch and a half at its widest magnified for a canvas that is about three feet by four is stunning.
Yet it is her landscapes that I found I preferred. Her early cityscapes of the New York skyline, painted before her marriage to gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, show stylized skies alongside relatively featureless buildings. The viewer gets a sense of the facelessness of the city that someone from a rural background – as O’Keeffe was – would have felt very keenly. The colours are dark and cool, emphasising a sense of coolness and lack of feeling.
Her Santa Fe pictures, in contrast, are wide in scope and brighter in colour; hot reds and oranges and a sense of a never ending space marked only by geology. It is clear that O’Keeffe loved Santa Fe – even her early works featuring the Penitente crosses hint at her changing palette as Georgia’s horizons gradually expanded to take into account her new landscape.
I would have seen this exhibition even without having read her biography but I cannot deny that I got so much more out of the exhibition knowing the background to some of the works. I will admit, however, that nothing prepared me for the scale of the works, and I did feel quite shocked at first. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to have seen so many of her works together and would thoroughly recommend this exhibition to anyone who loves modern art.