Georgia O’Keeffe was one of America’s first modernist painters, best known for her large paintings of flowers in close-up, New York skyscrapers and her New Mexico landscapes. The most prevailing interpretation of her paintings – that they represent female genitalia, is simply not true. O’Keeffe spent six decades firmly rejecting the idea that her paintings were in any way sexual or anatomical representations of vaginas.
O’Keeffe fought for her art to be recognised and appreciated, dedicated to this cause she became one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century. She was a fiercely determined woman who spent her life doing what she wanted to do, never letting anything get in her way. She once said, quite frankly:
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
The idea that O’Keeffe’s flower paintings had any sexual or anatomical significance began almost 100 years ago and was first put forward by Alfred Stieglitz – O’Keeffe’s partner and later, husband. O’Keeffe wasn’t happy about the interpretations of her work by male critics, and asked her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan to write about her work, stating in a letter, “a woman might say something a man can’t.”
O’Keeffe is still best known for her large flower paintings, despite the prolific collection of later works, inspired by the New Mexico landscape that she adored.
Skulls are Beautiful
In 1929, a trip to New Mexico changed O’keeffe’s art. New Mexico became the source of inspiration for her paintings and she began painting the bones and skulls she found there in the barren landscape.
O’Keeffe thought of the skulls as beautiful, rather than morbid or having any association with death, saying “the bones do not symbolise death to me, they are shapes that I enjoy. It never occurs to me that they have anything to do with death, they are very lively.” O’Keeffe sometimes decorated the skulls with flowers and often set them against the New Mexico skyline, bringing together many of her most enjoyed themes.
“I can image myself being a much better painter, and nobody paying any attention to me at all.”
O’Keeffe considered herself very fortunate to have been so successful an artist and believed it to be due to being in touch with her time, rather than necessarily being the greatest painter of her time.
Reflecting on her success, O’Keeffe said
“I don’t know, but maybe it’s because I’ve taken hold of anything that came along that I wanted.”
O’Keeffe was determined and tenacious, she took risks and wasn’t afraid to fail, stating “on this knife, I might fall of on either side but i would walk it again.”
O’Keeffe inspired women artists all over the world with her work, including fellow artist Yayoi Kusama. Living in Japan and dreaming of escaping her family to become an artist, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe responded to Kusama’s letter and encouraged her to move to New York. Once there, O’Keeffe advised Kusama further and helped her to succeed as an artist in the New York art scene.
Kusama said of O’Keeffe:
“She looked into potential exhibition opportunities for me. I was deeply moved by that.”
Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist in the Desert
Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist in the Desert is an incredible book by Britta Benke, containing some of O’Keeffe’s most iconic paintings, interspersed with photos of the artist at work. This book covers the fascinating life and work of America’s mother of modernism.
Georgia O’Keeffe – Phaidon Focus
Georgia O’Keeffe – Phaidon Focus is a great monograph of O’Keeffe’s work by Randall C. Griffin.
The book exhibits the breadth of O’Keeffe’s work and provides a fantastic insight into her life as an artist and her inspirations and influences.
Georgia O’Keeffe – Little People, BIG DREAMS
Georgia O’Keeffe – Little People, BIG DREAMS is a fantastic book to inspire young readers to follow their dreams.
The book tells the amazing story of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, her dedication to art and how she followed her passion as an artist, to become the mother of American modernism.
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