Georgia O’Keeffe is as alone in the art of the last century as she was in her retirement from New Mexico, where she began spending summers and falls and ended up staying permanently, inhabiting a house of architecture as naked as the bones she liked to paint. in a study with a huge five-meter-long window that accommodated the vastness of the landscape. In one photo, she is seen from behind, from afar, walking along the ridge of an arid hill, followed by a dog. In others made by Alfred Stieglitz, first a mentor and then an accomplice, a clandestine lover who later became her husband, she is seen in another equally desert landscape carrying a canvas already mounted on a frame by hand, with an aspect more of an explorer than of painter. Georgia O’Keeffe had lived until she was 12 years old in a house in the middle of a prairie in Minnesota, brimming with plant fertility in summers and winters battered by snow storms. Those amplitudes that a European imagination cannot conceive were brought with her when she went to study art in Chicago, advanced and very soon innovative, probing from a very young age the forms of the female body and the concise abstractions that already pursued the bare marrow of reality.
The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition in Madrid, in pictures
In the early 1920s, settled in New York, seeking in painting paths similar to those that Stieglitz sought with photography, O’Keeffe painted visions of the skyscrapers that were rising more and more in number and higher in Manhattan. But even then its condition of space was not exclusively urban. Georgia O’Keeffe’s skyscrapers have the massive solidity of mountains, the verticality of giant redwoods; and above them the skies and full moons with their halos of mist suggest a cosmic breadth as powerful as a night in the desert. García Lorca said that what was unique about New York was that human works reached the scale of natural phenomena. Lorca’s New York is Georgia O’Keeffe’s. Both come from a deep connection with the land, and both the urban spectacle at its maximum power produces wonder and horror in equal measure. The buildings are silhouetted against the darkness at night like mountains and cliffs. The lights from the windows are more innumerable than those from the stars. The white brightness of a street lamp can be identical to that of a full moon. In the curve of the mast of a lamppost there may be a suggestion of a vegetal shape.
Always on the move, although almost always on highly regulated itineraries, Georgia O’Keeffe changes her focus from time to time. In the summers he would leave Manhattan with Stieglitz and go to the overwhelming wilderness areas of upstate New York, to the same untouched places that the romantic landscape painters of the 19th century used to paint. But unlike them, and the European Impressionists, O’Keeffe subjects the natural world to a radical simplification. The separate categories of the figurative and the abstract are meaningless to her. Abstraction does not deny the visible world: what it does is reveal its essential forms, and therefore guide the gaze towards a sharper perception. A cabin or barn sits on the ground as definitely as a mountain, or as a tree. A close-up autumn leaf contains all the lines of bare branches and trunks and all the fantastic variety of colors that can be seen in an entire forest.
The cubism of Picasso or Braque (not that of Juan Gris, by the way) dissects the forms of things: with its love for the concrete, its attention to the rhythms and formal patterns of nature, its impudence in the use of color, Georgia O’Keeffe opens a path for painting that she walks alone. Her itinerary of learning and discovery takes her from Manhattan to the Lake George of summers and then to her definitive territory, in life and in painting, the wild solitudes of New Mexico, first in round trips, then in a residence. invariable. In the photos, as the years go by, Georgia O’Keeffe’s face and all the physical presence are more and more like that of a pioneer worn by the elements, of an anchorite retired in the desert. Alfred Stieglitz was still in New York, where they spent their winters together. Over time their passionate relationship became almost exclusively epistolary. Letters of beauty and vehemence had been written before they met, as evidenced by the photos that Stieglitz took of her, of her entire naked body, her hands, her face, every inch of her skin.
The influence of Georgia O’Keeffe begins to show not when looking at her paintings at the Thyssen, but when leaving the museum and observing things with different eyes
Stieglitz, who was 23 years her senior, died in her arms in New York in 1946. Shortly afterwards O’Keeffe settled permanently in New Mexico. On summer nights he liked to sleep on the roof of his adobe house in the middle of the desert. He was looking for a way to cover all that space in the confines of a canvas. As soon as he opened his eyes he was already studying the colors of dawn with the no less foolish purpose of capturing them through painting. His ambition for the maximum corresponded to that of highlighting the seemingly minor things that the distracted eye does not distinguish well: a single leaf of a forest, a shell, the open corolla of a flower, its secret folds and symmetries, elegance supreme of that species of unique petal of a cove, coiled around the yellow shaft that has the beautiful name of spadix. She painted the hard mineral volumes of the hills and the bare bones and the fleeting shapes of the clouds, the water currents, the leaves and the flowers, as fascinated by their differences as by their similarities. In old age he became fond of traveling by plane and was enthusiastic about the degree of abstraction that things acquired from above: the winding of a road was very similar to that of a river; the arms of a delta at a mouth opened like the branches of a tree; rising above the clouds the white plain stretched out to a remote horizon like the snowy meadows of his childhood. But the true effect, the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe, begins to show not when looking at her paintings in the Thyssen, but when leaving the museum and observing things with different eyes.
‘Georgia O’Keeffe’. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Madrid. Until the 8 of August.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.