Uncategorized

Georgia O’Keefe: The impact of criticism on her work & contemporary art world status

The myth of femininity

Georgia O’Keefe’s art has always been regarded as distinctively female, from the Stieglitz circle  exhibitions in the 1920’s until our time. The connotations of the essentialist female discourse that has been attributed to her have evolved through the years, shifting from a male centred discourse promoted by Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920’s which posited O’Keeffe as a sexual, yet passive agent, and which reflected the way women were seen at the time in Western society, to a discourse of subjective sexuality which was introduced by feminist theorists in the 1970’s and which referred to O’Keeffe as a pioneering woman who claimed her ‘full sexual citizenship’,1 subverting the masculine-feminine, subject-object role traditionally attributed to woman, and introducing an idea of ‘sexed subjectivity’.2

In this essay, I attempt to explore the meaning of the myth of Woman through Simone de Beauvoir and her revolutionary work The Second Sex, as well as critical response on O’Keeffe’s work from the 1920’s and feminist theory from the 1970’s onwards and O’Keeffe’s own opinions on her work and femininity, and I will try to demonstrate how ideas about gender throughout the century have had a decisive impact on O’Keeffe’s reputation and position in contemporary art, trying to answer the question of why she consistently denied any sexual connotations in her art throughout her career.  I will finish by questioning the very issue of “feminine essence”, trying to evaluate to what extent her belief in it actually influenced her work as well as her status in the canon.

Firstly, it is necessary to look at the context in which Georgia O’Keeffe developed as an artist in order to be able to understand the origin of the gendered interpretations of her work. As Anna C. Chave  states in her essay ‘O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze’: “if we are ever to be able to be able to see O’Keefe’s art anew- as a worthwhile, complex, and even daring project- we must examine the prevailing biases and themes that have dominated the O’Keeffe criticism from the outset”.3 I will start by examining the role of Alfred Stieglitz and his critics in the making of O’Keeffe’s public image in the 1920’s and 1930’s, whose opinion on the artist can be summarized in Stieglitz’s claim that he had encountered “at last, a woman on paper”, when he first saw her work in 1915.4

Alfred Stieglitz was an eminent figure in the American artistic scene of the 1920’s. After the closing of the 291 gallery in 1917, he assembled a small but powerful contingent of critics around himself and his artists.5 The discourse behind Stieglitz’s modernist project is defined by Marcia Brennan as ‘embodied formalism’,6 which can be described as ‘expressing a spiritual concept through material form’.7 Stieglitz’s conceptions of gender and human embodiment were incredibly influential; mimicked by his critics, they were broadly accepted by the public opinion, and for many decades, they remained to be.

In the case of O’Keeffe, ‘embodied formalism’8 took the shape of what Stieglitz considered to be the essence of woman. The standard social conceptions of woman as other, sexual, mysterious, different, and interesting perhaps, but inferior, inform the view of what is taken to be distinctively female, and O’Keeffe’s work is interpreted accordingly.9 In 1919, Stieglitz stated that ‘Woman feels the world differently than Man feels it. […] The Woman receives the world through her Womb. That is the seat of her deepest feeling. Mind comes second.’10 And, in response to O’Keefe’s Blue and Green Music (1919, Fig. 1) and Inside Red Canna (1919, Fig. 2), critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote:

‘There are spots in [O’Keeffe’s] work wherein the artist seems to bring before one the outline of a whole universe, an entire course of life, mysterious cycles of birth and reproduction and death, expressed through the terms of a woman’s body. For, there is no stroke laid by her brush, whatever it is she may paint, that is not curiously, arrestingly female in quality. Essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures.’11

It is noteworthy that in this critique, as in the rest of the early critical response to O’Keeffe’s work, there are no references to the art itself. The alleged essence of womanhood in her art seems to emanate from every brushstroke, ‘whatever it is she may paint’.12 The presented narrative of the “mysterious essence of Womanhood” and woman’s “magical” relationship to nature is not a new concept introduced by Stieglitz, but rather a myth that has been consistently present in patriarchal society over the course of time.  Simone de Beauvoir deconstructed this myth In The Second Sex (1949), and presented her pioneering theory of woman as historical Other to man, in which she rejected essentialist definitions of woman that reflected the oppressive myth of woman as Other, arguing that patriarchal society has imposed the ‘essential’ male and ‘inessential’ female13 role on individuals.

In describing the characteristics of the ‘feminine myth’,14 Beauvoir states that:

‘Appearing as the Other, woman appears at the same time as a plenitude of being by opposition to the nothingness of existence which man experiences in itself; the Other, posited as object in the subject’s eyes, is posited as in-itself, thus as being. Woman embodies positively the lack the existent carries in his heart, and man hopes to realise himself by finding himself through her.’15

The relationship Woman-Nature has been seen as “positive” by contemporary critics such as Katherine Hoffmann, who sees this interpretation of O’Keeffe’s work as ‘a shift from that traditional definition which equated femininity with passiveness, delicacy, decorativeness, and domesticity.’16 However, a deeper look into this seemingly inoffensive and somewhat poetic comparison will prove that tradition is merely taking on a more attractive appearance in the form of the critics’ exalted words. By equating woman and fertility to Earth, and Nature, an ambiguous relationship is established. Man seeks to dominate nature as well as being fascinated by it. Nature is glorious, yet passive, for progress is only made by virtue of man. Nature is good and bad, it is uncontrollable, it is cyclic. Woman’s uncontainable emotionality echoes Nature, and her fertility reflects the passivity of feminine virtue.17 Femininity is, thus, subjected to masculinity, to the seed, to the active agent; and her emotions, which reign over reason, must be tamed by man, just as Nature is tamed by him.

The myth of woman as sex also dominated early criticism on O’Keeffe’s work. An example of this is the critique written by Marsden Hartley in 1921, which upset her greatly.18 Hartley wrote that ‘the pictures of O’Keeffe… are probably as living and shameless private documents as exist, in painting certainly […] By shamelessness I mean unqualified nakedness of statement.’19

Throughout her career, O’Keeffe routinely dismissed sexual readings of her paintings. She stated that ‘the critics are just talking about themselves, not about what I am thinking.’20 Even so, it would be foolish to deny the erotic nature of her vision: part of her originality resides in the fact that in her passionate affirmation of the world she didn’t ignore the sexual side of life.21 But it is clear that she was taken as expressing female sexuality in a fairly literal sense. The problem with all these accounts of O’Keeffe’s art is that it is not that her pictures are not sexual, but that the expressions of her sexuality were appropriated and exploited by critics for their own ends, made over into mirrors of their own desires.22 Her art was described not as the vision of someone with real, deeply felt desires but as the vision of that depersonalized, essentialized Woman who obligingly stands for sex, Nature and Truth.23

As well as the myth of woman as Nature and Truth, Beauvoir also deconstructed the myth of woman as sex, arguing that ‘the asymmetry of the two categories, male and female, can be seen in the unilateral construction of sexual myths. Woman is sometimes designated as “sex”; it is she who is the flesh, its delights, and its dangers. That for woman it is man who is sexed and carnal is a truth that has never been proclaimed because there is no one to proclaim it.’24 This affirmation leads us onto a new interpretation of O’Keeffe’s work. In the 70’s, her work came to be seen as ‘sexed subjectivity’:25 it was thought to be expressing a conception of the distinctively female that is not just sexual but encompassed contemporary feminist concerns in philosophy.26

When talking about the symbolism in her art, O’Keeffe stated: ‘I find that I have painted my life, things happening in my life – without knowing.’27 Feminist reviews from the 1970’s onwards suggest that through her sexualized art, O’Keeffe was, perhaps not quite consciously, and from a personal perspective, proclaiming this very fact, subverting the sexual subject-object relationship between male and female.  Interpreting O’Keeffe’s representation of subjective sexuality, Chave argues that ‘in opening up the possibility for the representation of women as agents of their own desire, O’Keeffe opened up new possibilities as well for the sexual positioning of men; and the commotion raised by male critics over her “shameless” imagery might be explained, in part, by their glimpsing of those possibilities.’

Georgia O’Keefe: subverting or perpetuating the myth?

O’Keeffe’s account of her own work also proves to be quite revealing. In 1915, she said that her work ‘[seemed] to express in a way that I want it to… essentially a woman’s feeling.’28 Some years later, she wrote that:

‘I have never felt a more feminine person— and what that is I do not know— so I let it go at that till something else crystallizes […] A woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living might say something that a man cant — I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore—Men have done all they can do about it.’29

As third wave feminists believe, she expressed, in her own way, her conception of female sexuality and womanhood, which was radical at the time, considering that the 1920’s was a time when thanks to Freudian theory, women as sexed beings were starting to be discovered, but only as objects of male desire. These statements are, however, somewhat contradictory in the sense that although she rejected the critics’ essentialist definitions of Woman, and she made a great effort to be seen as an artist, rather than a woman artist, even consciously evolving towards a more ‘intellectual’30 style, she was trying to express this essence herself; and the very fact that she believed in an essence of womanhood which she aimed to capture on canvas is  perhaps problematic because it seems to have restricted to some extent the interpretations of her art, including her abstractions, to conceptions of womanhood and femininity, rather than purely aesthetical interpretations. It could be argued that through believing in a myth of femininity, although a different one, O’Keeffe herself has contributed in a way to the perception of her persona as a woman artist rather than an artist in the art world, which I believe has persisted throughout the decades, placing her in a marginal or Other place in the canon. Whether that would have happened anyway had she not believed in the concept of femininity herself might be worth questioning.

There is no doubt that Georgia O’Keeffe was ahead of her time; however, her depictions of her own essence of womanhood, of subjective womanhood, are limiting in the sense that they perpetuate “feminine” identity in exclusively sexual terms. Exalting woman’s lived universe does not contribute to subvert the terms in which the category of “woman” has been defined throughout history. Rather than trying to claim “feminine essence” that is not subordinate to man, it is perhaps better to think about how the concept of femininity is constructed through culture to then be able to deconstruct it. In other words, sexual identity does not constitute an essential and irreducible nucleus that we should rediscover and enhance, but rather a construction which is constantly redefining itself, or, as Beauvoir put it – ‘Perhaps the myth of woman will be phased out one day: the more women assert themselves as human beings, the more the marvellous quality of Other dies in them. But today it still exists in the hearts of all men’.31

Charlotte Jerez, 2011

_______________________

1 Anna C. Chave,’ O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze’, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) p. 36

2 San Maccoll, ‘A Woman On Paper’,  in Aesthetics in feminist perspective, (New York: Hypatia, 1993), p. 164

3 Anna C. Chave,’ O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze’, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), p. 29

4 Ibid, p. 31

5 Marcia Brennan, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, (Cambridge, Masachussets: The MIT Press, 2001) p. 73

6 Brennan, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory, p. 8

7 Ibid, p. 8

8 Ibid, p. 8

9 San Maccoll, ‘A Woman On Paper’,  in Aesthetics in feminist perspective, (New York: Hypatia, 1993), p. 163

10 Alfred Stieglitz, ‘Woman in Art’, from an October 9, 1919, letter to Stanton Macdonald-Wright, quoted in Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973), p. 137

11 Paul Rosenfeld, “The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe: The Work of the Young Artist Whose Canvases Are to Be Exhibited in Bulk for the First Time This Winter,” Vanity Fair 19 (October 1922); reprinted in Lynes, O’Keeffe, p. 178.

12 Rosenfeld, ‘The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe’, p. 178

13 C. Ascher, ‘Simone de Beauvoir – Mother of Us all’, Social Text, No. 17 (Autumn, 1987) (Duke University Press, 1987) p. 107

14 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 165

15 Ibid, p. 165

16 Katherine Hoffmann, An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O’Keeffe, (London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984) p. 68

17 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 165

18 Grace Glueck,, “Art Notes: ‘It’s Just What’s In My Head,'”New York Times, 18 October 1970, sec. 2., p. 24, reprinted in A Woman On Paper, San Maccoll, in Aesthetics in feminist perspective, Hypatia, New York, 1993, p.152

19 Marsden Hartley, Adventures in the Arts, Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville, and Poets (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921) p. 116

20 Hoffmann, An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O’Keeffe, p. 69

21 Christopher Merrill and Ellen Bradbury, Introduction, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) p.9

22 Anna C. Chave,’ O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze’, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) p. 37

23 Ibid p. 37

24 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.  166

25 Maccoll, ‘A Woman On Paper’,  in Aesthetics in feminist perspective, (New York: Hypatia, 1993), p. 166

26 Ibid, p. 164

27 Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: Viking Press, 1976) p. 2

28 O’Keeffe,  Letter from O’Keeffe to Pollitzer, 4 January 1916; printed in Cowart, Hamilton, and Greenough, Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters. (Washington: New York Graphic Society/Little, 1987) p. 147

29 O’Keeffe, letter in Cowart, Hamilton, and Greenough, Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, p. 180

30 Barbara Buhler Lynes, ‘The Language of Criticism: Its Effect on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Art in the 1920’s’, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) p. 51

31 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 165-166

Illustrations

Fig. 1: Georgia O’Keeffe, Blue and Green Music, 1919

Fig. 2: Georgia O’Keeffe, Inside Red Canna, 1924

Bibliography:

Carol Ascher, ‘Simone de Beauvoir – Mother of Us all’, Social Text, No. 17 (Autumn, 1987) (Duke University Press, 1987)

Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex (1949), (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009)

Marcia Brennan, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, (Cambridge, Masachussets: The MIT Press, 2001)

Anna C. Chave,’ O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze’, From The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992)

Cowart, Jack, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough, Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters. (Washington: New York Graphic Society/Little, 1987)

Glueck, Grace, ‘Art Notes: ‘It’s Just What’s In My Head,’ New York Times, 18 October 1970, sec. 2, p. 24

Hartley,  Marslen,  Adventures in the Arts, Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville, and Poets (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921)

Maccoll, Sam, ‘A Woman On Paper’,  in Aesthetics in feminist perspective, (New York: Hypatia, 1993)

Rosenfeld, Paul, ‘The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe: The Work of the Yound Artist Whose Canvases Are to Be Exhibited in Bulk for the First Time This Winter,’ Vanity Fair 19 (October 1922)

Stieglitz, Alfred, ‘Woman in Art’, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973)

Glueck, Grace, ‘Art Notes: ‘It’s Just What’s In My Head,’ New York Times, 18 October 1970, sec. 2, p. 24

Hartley,  Marslen,  Adventures in the Arts, Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville, and Poets (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921)

Advertisements

One thought on “Georgia O’Keefe: The impact of criticism on her work & contemporary art world status

  1. A very insightful and balanced article on the subject. I have written and performed for nearly 20 years, a one woman play, “O’Keeffe!”. I have approached the same question batted about here through the lens of the character of O’Keeffe. Having done that, I think you are on the mark and appreciate your quotes that support her view point (which I perceive as accurate) of being rankled by the various interpretations of her art, especially the blatant sexual ones. My show has her setting out to answer the question for herself: “Was it me or was it Stieglitz?” My viewpoint from inside the character is the frustration of being true to her self and her art–and yet she did fiercely love Stieglitz, although he also drove her nuts. It is a journey through her struggle to define for herself what it all means, and to carve out her independence artistically, spiritually, and emotionally within a relationship that despite all odds she chose to remain in. This intrigues me. It intrigues me that yes, her paintings can be interpreted as expressing a sexual curiosity–and yet she fiercely denied this. I am exploring opportunities to present the play in England, yet wonder if there is enough interest in her. Reviews formal and informal have often said that it is not necessary to know anything about O’Keeffe in order to enjoy my play, as the quest to remain independent within a relationship and acknowledge where boundaries are defined and blurred are universal. If anyone would care to comment, I can be reached at lucimc@verizon.net. Lucinda McDermott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s