Flower power and paint

Na­ture can be a mes­meris­ing, charm­ing and erotic muse, says Tim Richard­son

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

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

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