What do you see when you look at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of an oversized flower? Are you looking deeply into a flower or a vagina?
For decades, art critics and art lovers have been debating the question.
The new Tate Modern July 2016 retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe will attempt to answer that question once and for all. The Tate calls the assumptions that her famous flowers paintings are depictions of female genitalia, a “conservative male” concept.
How is this interpretation specifically male? Or conservative? I think a lot of wild women would heartily agree, “Yes! Hail the Goddess! After all, feminists in the 1970s championed O’Keeffe’s work, according to Tanya Barson, Curator of the Tate Modern show, “as a statement of female empowerment.”
I like that.
Barson also defends O’Keeffe’s own denial – since the 1920s - that her paintings were in any way sexual. According to an article about the exhibit in the Guardian: “The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who first promoted O’Keeffe’s work and later became her husband.”
Stieglitz knew how to promote a show.
Georgia, herself, explained why she made the flowers so gigantic: “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 the time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers…I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”
To quote Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s Director, his hope is that the Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective will offer O’Keeffe’s work the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist. “O’Keeffe has been very much reduced to one particular body of work, which tends to be read in one particular way,” Borchardt-Hume said. “Many of the white male artists across the 20th century have the privilege of being read on multiple levels, while others – be they women or artists from other parts of the world – tend to be reduced to one conservative reading. It’s high time that galleries and museums challenge this.”
Like millions of people, I have been a Georgia O’Keeffe fan since I first saw her work, probably in a book, maybe as a calendar, maybe as a print on someone’s wall. It was the '60s so I’m not sure where I was or what the painting was. But, I know I must have been mesmerized.
Very few artists of any caliber can pull off the close-up of the oversized flower. In fact, I really can think of only one – O’Keeffe.
Another part of my fascination and love for Georgia O’Keeffe lies in her finding her true identity in another land far from her home. I traveled only a few miles to the rocky shores north of Boston to discover another world that seemed to be a long lost home worlds away from where I grew up. Georgia traveled thousands of miles, from her birthplace in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, passing through crowded, nervous New York City, on to stay with artist friends in New Mexico where she felt more and more comfortable, more herself, finally rejecting her old life back in New York to make her permanent home in the vast, open land of New Mexico, the terracotta desert and the cerulean blue sky. There, she found her true self in the hot, endless space.
To me, O’Keeffe’s flower paintings need to be viewed within the context of this desert. In the desert, the importance of flowers is tremendous. Moisture is precious. Life is precious. O’Keeffe may not have meant the flowers to be genitalia, the flowers simply are genitalia. Flowers are the sex organs of plants, and, in the desert, the moist folds of the flower hold life itself.
But, I do not take the sexuality of the flower as separate from other – what did the Tate call it? Other “readings” of the work. To me, the sexuality of the flowers, the life force of the flowers, cannot be separated from the rest of life.
Take her 1932 painting of the Jimson weed, for instance, which sold for $44.4 million, the highest amount for a painting by a female artist, the Guardian tells us. Really? F**k you. Such a distinction is an insult to female artists.
Back to Jimson weed, also known as angel trumpet. Or devil’s snare, hell’s bells and devil’s cucumber. Thought to have originated in Mexico, but has a Greek and Hindi etymology (see below). Highly toxic. Hallucinogenic. Beautiful to look at, emitting a powerful perfume, also called moonflower, which opens at night and is fed upon by the night moth. The ancient inhabitants of central and southern California ingested the small black seeds of datura to speak to their gods in visions. Native-Americans such as the Algonquin, Navajo, and Cherokee also used this plant in sacred ceremonies for its hallucinogenic properties. The common name "datura" has its roots in ancient India where the plant is considered particularly sacred, and is believed to be a favorite of the Hindu god Shiva Nataraia.
The genus name is derived from the plant's Hindi name धतूरा dhatūra. Stramonium is originally from Greek, strychmos στρύχνος "nightshade" and maniakos μανιακός "mad."
In the United States, the plant is called jimson weed, or Jamestown weed; it got this name from the town of Jamestown, Virginia, where British soldiers consumed it. They spent 11 days in altered mental states:
“The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call'd) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather'd very young for a boil'd salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.”
– The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705
Now, do you get an inkling of why the flowers needed to be so huge?
Of course, the vulva contains all of the above qualities. Moist lips of the flower of life. Perhaps poisonous, perhaps life giving.
Look deeply into the spiral of the Jimson Weed. What do you see?
Opium, soft hypnotic dream
Sweet spring sap of maple
Plums, apples, rock, pulsating with life
Can you really separate the flower from its source or from its fruit?
Note: To their immense credit, the Tate Modern will display O’Keeffe as a “‘multifaceted artist’ and will also be exploring her relationship to photography, music and the landscape of New Mexico, where she lived and worked in the 1930s and 40s and embedded herself deeply into the sprit and traditions of the area. It will open with the charcoals that O’Keeffe first exhibited in 1915 and end on more abstract river paintings from the early 1960s. Also included in the show will be several photographs that O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, took of her over the course of their complex marriage, including portraits and nudes…” (from The Guardian article, “Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe Tate show to challenge sexual clichés” by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, March 1, 2016.)
Years ago, after seeing a wonderful documentary of her life in Santa Fe, I was inspired to write and published this poem, “Georgia O’Keeffe” in my book, Marblehead Moon (Plum Press, 1993) I was struck by the ancient simplicity of how Georgia lived and worked. She cleaned her own house and baked her own bread. The starkness of her home reflected the stark beauty of the desert.
Thank you, Georgia O’Keeffe for your work.
The shapes of Nature repeat themselves
line may be lip or bone
round may be breast or stone
and, so unknown to her,
her painting of shell and bone
unfolded into the folds
of the female flower
and art sellers were amazed
and excited - and titillated -
but, this was not an artistic striptease
not an agressive Ms. Chicago
force fed in your faces
at the dinner table
this was not by her hand
but the hand of God
The Great God of Where the Line Goes
so, the salty shell,
the desert shell,
opened a slit
an illicit slit
and the Art World
sucked in its breath
and flapped about the galleries
like birds who smash
themselves against glass
and the owners called her up
far way, in the desert, the phone rings
a blush phone in a stark bone room
always, before she worked,
picked clean of excess
an old woman, an old artist
dressed simply, in black,
walks in slowly, on a cane
the voice is frantic! she cannot do this!
she answers again
"I did not do it."
"The evidence is there."
"The mountains are colors that roll above sand.
The birds fly alive
and alive again
And the road goes beyond the view."
there are censors! cries the little voice
caught in the blush machine
The old artist cradles the troubled receiver
in a pillow, like a screaming babe
She lifts her cane and walks out
into hot silence
She paces a circle
She is a black sculpture
tracing white sand
making an Indian drawing
lines of herself on the land
When she came there
she was alone with rattlesnakes
rattlesnakes owned the property
but, the unending opened her
and out came music on to the land
violins spiralled the adobe air
horns heralded the red sun
the snakes backed under rocks
herself a source
she took in the land
breathing in huge gulps
she planted and ate and spoke the land
she curled up and slept with the land
brushed the land on her canvas
made love to the land
with colors so ancient, they seemed bold
with flowers so precious, they became mountains
with sculpted forms
waiting now in living bodies
found then in the dust by the road
recognized, they framed her view
of the sky to the sea
and in old age
hers was the face of beauty
They say old Indians
come home from the grave
and if she does
again, the rattlesnakes will make way
for, how can God answer a whining man
on the phone?
the place of creation has no horizon
the place of success hangs on a wall
Nature's shapes repeat themselves
shell, vagina, flower, bone
and the maker walks round a circle
in the sand
which only the ancient may understand.
©Patricia Goodwin, 2016
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation.