If you’re finding yourself low on inspiration, we can’t really recommend a better eye-opener in London right now than a walk around the Tate Modern’s current Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective, which shows until 30th October. It’s a huge exhibition spanning the American painter’s entire career, and contains many of her most famous works.
Though O’Keeffe is very much on the beaten track of the art world, it’s definitely true that the best are often considered to be the best for the reason. It’s wonderful to see a woman artist being celebrated by a major institution like the Tate in a no-expense spared show.
O’Keeffe’s status as a woman painter is crucial to the soft, flowing sensibility of her work, which makes visual links between landscapes, nature, and, most notoriously, flowers, with female anatomy. She was very much aware of her work’s innate femininity during her active years, and once said ‘Men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I’m one of the best painters,’ a provocative quote that the Tate have used to market the exhibition across London. O’Keeffe was not wrong: her sprawling, career-long exhibition proves her unique, evocative skill far beyond that of many of her (male) peers. From her early New York skylines, to her famous flowers, to the more abstract New Mexico landscapes she painted later in life, her modernist style is always identifiable – and, we think, inflected with a femininity which only adds to the emotional punch of her work.
As a woman working in a context of men (some of her peers, including her husband Alfred Stieglitz, also have work included in the show, for background information), O’Keeffe had something of an uphill struggle to greatness. Having taken art lessons since childhood, her creative tendencies had always been apparent, and she showed a determination not to let her sex limit her.
Stieglitz called O’Keeffe ‘the first female modernist,’ and it’s a title which has remained with her after her death. It’s the feminine look of her work which defines it for most people. Her play with soft pastel colours is especially inspiring, and when viewed on the white walls of the gallery it’s something very special.
O’Keeffe’s delicate palette should please anyone with an appreciation for colour, especially as they tap into the very current aesthetic of a number of young woman artists, Glasshouse favourite Petra Collins included.
And, walking around O’Keeffe’s exhibit, it’s very clear how she has inspired generations of woman artists. Often hindered by injustice and underrepresentation in the art world and beyond, woman creators throughout history have expressed their frustration by feminising the space around them in their work (for O’Keeffe it was the natural world; for today’s generation it’s the webpage or teen bedroom).
This way, they reclaim these spaces as their own, even if only figuratively. O’Keeffe saw the female body in nature and drew strength from it; today’s artists – through similar use of light and colour – also use their work create a girl world where they rule all.
So if you have a free afternoon and you want to get back in touch with art’s feminine side, and all of the power and beauty that entails, you could do much worse than escaping city life for an hour or two to enjoy some of the most iconic painting on offer in London right now. Take a walk around, absorb O’Keeffe’s lush imagery, and remember to breathe.
Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern runs until 30th October.
Words: Lauren O’Neill
Cover image: georgiaokeeffe.net