Sunday, 2 November 2008

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe portraits by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have become commercial icons. Animal skulls dried by the desert, adobe chapels, lush sexual flowers, tall thrusting cityscapes, all part of an instantly recognisable and popular style. O’Keeffe herself has become part of that iconography, just as recognisable. Her face, with its strong sharp features, piercing intelligence, and deep eyes, echoes the visual images of her work. Yet,as this exhibition shows, that image is itself a work of art, a construct that arose from the unlikely artistic partnership of one of the major figures of modernism in America with an unknown student. Over thirty years, it would produce nearly 400 prints.

In 1916 Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was the centre of modern art in America. His journal Camera Work was almost singlehandedly turning photography into an art form. O’Keeffe was a 28 year old unsuccessful artist who had taught in South Carolina and Texas and was taking classes at Columbia. A friend had passed O’Keeffe’s drawings on to Sieglitz because she knew how much she admired him and his immediate reaction was “at last, a woman on paper!” He exhibited the drawings at 291, getting the state wrong as he billed her as “Virginia O’Keeffe”, but over- whelming O’Keeffe’s protestations at being taken up with his understanding of her art. And his understanding of its impact. The gallery which had introduced America to Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley was now causing a bigger stir. The powerful erotic energy which Stieglitz recognised in O’Keffee’s abstract drawings disturbed many of New York’s critics, even those in the would-be avant-garde.

Stieglitz was keen to introduce women into the modernist movement (Camera Work gave Gertrude Stein her first appearance in print), but where on the one hand he was promoting O'Keeffe's work, encouraging her as an artist, on the other he also began using her as a model, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of her romantic, as well as artistic, objectification.

At the beginning, Stieglitz was taken by the abstract possibilities of O’Keeffe’s remarkably strong, sharp features. He is particularly attentive to her hands. Her long fingers both frame other objects to give them a geometric quality, and provide an abstract shape of their own. If modernism was about isolating the pure geometric volume from forms, Stieglitz was already beginning to move past that abstraction with O’Keeffe. But his photos quickly came to reflect the growing intimacy between photographer and subject. The quest for abstract shapes recedes, as Steiglitz becomes more and more fascinated with O’Keefe’s body, its combination of grace and power, of stark angles and edges softened by deep curves: her breasts against her shoulders, her hips balanced by her legs. And the same qualities he had originally captured in her hands he would continue to reveal in her face.

The stark force of her face was muted somewhat by O’Keeffe’s wonderfully expressive eyes. This expressiveness turns Steiglitz’s modernism transcendental: he had discovered a human form in nature which could both generate and convey the equivalent of his deepest inner experiences. Original as it seemed to him, he was also recapitulating what O’Keeffe had already made the central aim of her own art.

By 1919-20, the photographs have become more intimate, even obsessive. Abstract nudes give way to extreme sensuality, O’Keeffe setting her hair, squeezing her breasts, displaying her feet. They caused a scandal when exhibited, and even today there is something almost fetishistic about them. The scandal was intensified, no doubt, by the fact that they were living together openly, despite the fact that Stieglitz was married. Eventually, Steiglitz would take these 'scandalous' shots off the market.

After Stieglitz was divorced in 1924, he persuaded O’Keeffe to marry him. She saw no point in the added respectability of marriage, and perhaps predictably, Stieglitz’s camera at this point appears to lose its fire. He begins producing more mundane portraits, as if the very idea of being Mr. and Mrs. Stieglitz were the antithesis of their conception of modernist art and modern life. Reflecting their increasing time apart,the pictures become almost chaste. O’Keeffe began to spend more time travelling, while Stieglitz preferred the familiar environs of New York City and his house upstate on Lake George. Some of his passion transferred to his other major series of prints, shot at Lake George, of abstract shapes from nature, particularly clouds. These correspond with emotions, in much the same way that parts of O’Keeffe’s body once had, but they never recapitulate the total emotional involvement of the 1920 portraits.

But as their relationship, and his photographs of her became less intimate, Stieglitz began to portray O’Keeffe as an artist, rather than a model. He now seems more involved with the work than its creator, and he begins to reveal the iconic O’Keeffe so familiar to us today. Now the sharp angles of her face, the deep gaze of her eyes, the dynamic power of her body reflect what the artist and poet Marsden Hartley called the “almost violent purity of spirit” in her work.

Although Dorothy Norman took O’Keeffe’s place in the passionate intimacy of Stieglitz’s life, and O’Keeffe began to winter far away in New Mexico, they spent summers together each year at Lake George. By now she was travelling through New Mexico in an A Model Ford, with the back seat removed and converted into a mobile art studio. Her freedom seems to have fascinated Stieglitz, who photographed O’Keeffe’s hands, once again almost as abstract framing, caressing the wheel-covers of a V-8 car. The triumph of man over the energy of machines is an important part of both their work, but O’Keeffe’s hands give the picture its impact, inserting a human dimension to keep the powerful shape of the machine in its place, in fact, turning it into something to be caressed, if not an item of fashion.

There is a wonderful 1932 portrait of O’Keeffe in a head-scarf, looking out the front window of her car as if auditioning for the Bonnie Parker role in BONNIE AND CLYDE. As she gets older, her face seems to grow deeper, its angles more involving, stronger and more shadowy at the same time. What is clear from these photos is that a relationship which may have started very much as pupil and teacher, and soon deepened into romance, eventually extended beyond romance and into art. After the passion faded, they transcended the bounds of artistic or romantic definition. If Stieglitz’s images of her helped mould our perception of her as an artist, her vision as an artist helped Stieglitz find new means of expression through his camera.

“When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who that person is,” O’Keeffe wrote for a 1978 retrospective, some 60 years after those first pictures had been taken. Whoever that person was then, she is now the figure whose features, as captured by Stieglitz, reflect perfectly Marsden Hartley's perception of her work's violent purity.

NOTE: This piece was written for the FT, after an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, back (I think) in 1997. My memory says it bounced between the magazine and the weekend arts pages. These things happen. Here it is now. The exhibition's catalogue is still available...


karen said...

What a beautiful portrayal of the artists, the love affairs between themselves and the love affairs with the art. I have always loved Georgia O'Keefe's art, it is wonderful to learn more about her unique life.
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Dale said...


I completely agree. I can only image what Alfred Stieglitz felt when he first laid eyes on her charcoal drawings.

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