Flowers & skulls

Flowers = symbol of eroticism?

This year, I learnt that flowers are a symbol of eroticism (Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate, Dorothea Tanning at Alison Jacques, Araki at Musée Guimet). Critics, including feminists, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe’s own husband, Alfred Stieglitz, contributed to the erotic clichés about O’Keeffe’s paintings. “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs”, said O’Keeffe (1887, Wisconsin – 1986, New Mexico). 

Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

O’Keeffe didn’t want to be seen as a woman artist 

Tate curator Hannah Johnston revealed that flowers account for only 5% of O’Keeffe’s production. Still, Stieglitz was the first to interpret her works as erotic, linking them with Freudian interpretations. He described her works as the “essence of womanhood”; others followed. O’Keeffe didn’t want to be seen as a woman artist but as simply an artist. She turned to typically male subjects, such as cities, and shifted her language closer to cubism and futurism.

An immediate connection with New Mexico

In addition, to dispel clichés about womanhood surrounding O’Keeffe’s works, Tate Modern shows her taking modernism to rural areas. She felt an immediate connection with New Mexico, an arid desert region in the Southwestern US that also later appealed to Richard Diebenkorn and Agnes Martin. With few flowers there, O’Keeffe painted animal skulls. She fell in love with Ghost Ranch and bought a house there, with views of Cerro Pedernal, which became her Cezanne-sque Mont Sainte Victoire.

From the Faraway, Nearby, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1937 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tate also shows O’Keeffe’s musical inspiration. Herself an accomplished musician, her works oscillate between landscape and abstraction, culminating in the latter in her late 1950-60s paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe runs at Tate Modern until 30 October 2016.


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