Flower power and paint
Nature can be a mesmerising, charming and erotic muse, says Tim Richardson
Amajor new exhibition at Tate Modern is dedicated to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), the farmgirl from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who went on to wow the New York art scene in the Twenties with her strikingly graphic flower portraits, which pulsate with fecundity. Gardeners will instantly recognise that here is a painter who understands the power of plants and their primary mission in the world: to reproduce themselves. It is impossible either to miss or dismiss the sexual connotations of O’Keeffe’s depictions of the inner life of flowers.
In paintings such as Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932), left, O’Keeffe’s intention was not botanical accuracy. Instead she exposed the source of the flower’s indomitable power: its inbuilt urge to go forth and multiply. As a result, O’Keeffe’s flowers are not the elegant forms so delicately and assiduously recorded in stilllife paintings and in botanical art. They are powerful, dramatic, even slightly dangerous presences which seek to dominate the world around them. There is a strong internal rhythm to these works, a flowing movement and energy in the “lines” (a word she often used in titles) of the plant forms.
Tate Modern has not been able to resist using a flower as the poster for this show, but the curators have been candid about downplaying this aspect of O’Keeffe’s work in favour of other themes. The flower paintings occupy just one room of the exhibition. This apparent squeamishness about O’Keeffe’s most celebrated subject matter is not simply a matter of redressing an imbalance in our appreciation of the artist’s work. There is a feminist – or rather, academic-feminist – agenda at work, too.
As her career progressed, O’Keeffe herself sought to suppress a reputation as a “flower painter”, partly because this subject matter was (and is) glibly associated with female artists. The context is Freud’s theories of the unconscious, as promulgated by O’Keeffe’s male contemporaries, including her own
husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
In reaction, O’Keeffe switched her attention to the landscapes of Southwest America – New Mexico especially – and she is also now presented as an important figure in the development of abstract painting. It is these two aspects of the artist’s oeuvre – Modernism and regionalism – that Tate Modern is emphasising above the flower portraits. It’s a reading that seeks to suppress the idea that there are sexual overtones in the work. The argument goes that this is another example of a “masculinist” tendency to view art made by women as preoccupied with bodily functions, especially reproduction.
This interpretation does not account for the fact that flowers are sexual beings, and that they exist principally in order to reproduce themselves. The majority of visitors will still be drawn to the flower paintings above all else – and they will note the sexual elements, too. Anyone who knows plants cannot help but be aware of the affinity between humans and plants in this respect. So it seems reasonable to conclude that O’Keeffe noticed it, too.
Fortunately it is easy to bypass the theories and just enjoy the work. Away from the flowers, canvases such as Autumn Trees – The Maple (1924) capture the psychic impact of plants on their surroundings. The crimson, gold and deep brown of Autumn Leaves – Lake George, NY (1924) reflects the boisterousness of nature on occasion. There are even a few rather strange still-lifes: Apple Family – 2 (c. 1920) presents a group of plump, rosy apples huddled together on a white cloth; while the subject of The Eggplant (1924) is lent a certain dignity, resembling some giant bruised stone. In these paintings one gains a sense of O’Keeffe’s respect for plant forms as living beings.
As a way of assessing O’Keeffe’s affinity with plant forms, we asked four leading garden designers to respond spontaneously to specific paintings in the show – as horticulturists and art lovers.
Hard to miss: (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe exposes the flower’s full force. Now on display at Tate Modern, London
Naturally beautiful: inspired by flowers but recognisably human are Abstraction Blue (1927), above; Calla Lillies on Red (1928), top right; Dark Iris No 1, bottom right