Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 480 pages

• Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

• Price: $21.95

• ISBN-10: 0393327418

• ISBN-13: 978-0393327410

In meticulous, even painstaking detail, biographer and art critic, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp has recorded the near century of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and art. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is known even by those who know next to nothing about art—her paintings of gargantuan flowers and bleached white bones are well-known by the general public, even those who may never step inside an art museum or gallery. Being able to identify an O’Keeffe painting, however, has no relation to understanding the artist and the influences upon her life and creativity.

Coming from a family of artists, I am far more inclined to step inside an art gallery than, say, a sports stadium, and so I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s work well. Or, at least … I thought I did. What I knew was actually more the myth than the woman, the sales pitch rather than the art.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was traveling alone, and the experience of a woman alone in the world and on the road was very much on my mind. Wandering around Santa Fe, a unique town of adobe buildings that is deeply immersed in the arts, and the arts of this area deeply immersed in the surrounding physical geography of the land, I came face to face with Georgia. Granted, by 2007, Georgia herself was long gone. Yet her presence was very real in this area where she lived the last third or so of her life, and where she seemed to have found her true identity and free spirit—a woman supremely alone. Center of town was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I went inside … and stayed for a very long time. Indeed, I lost all track of time. And by the time I did emerge, I had an entirely new perception of this woman artist, and an expanding curiosity to learn more. I headed out to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, her two homes nearby, searching for Georgia’s spirit. I believe I found it.

And so back to this biography, Full Bloom, to learn more. As with any celebrity, and Georgia certainly became that, biographies abound. One has only to determine which one might offer more truth than imagination, and in this case, I imagine the autobiography Georgia herself authored may not be the most truthful. It can be difficult to be objective about oneself, and when a woman has suffered some of the indignities that this woman suffered, the reaction can often be to sweep under the carpet some of the ugliness of life, and leave on exhibit only the beauty and the recovery from that ugly suffering.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was not all roses. More thorn, perhaps. More a cutting down to the bone. Born in a small rural town near Madison, Wisconsin, she grew up without material advantage, making her own way in the world. Her art education began at the Art Institute of Chicago, continued in New York at the Art Students League. The discovery and subsequent exposure to the art world of her work is attributed to Alfred Stieglitz, art dealer and owner of Gallery 291 in New York. The gallery was known for being edgy and innovative, bringing to light new and abstract, groundbreaking art. Stieglitz was also a photographer, one of the firsts, breaking ground of his own. A friend of Georgia’s had brought samples of her work to Stieglitz and he was thrilled at the find, remarking that at last, here was a woman who could paint, and who painted as a woman.

At that point, an important door opens in Georgia’s life. Doors are an important theme in her artwork, an important metaphor—one that appears often in her paintings in synchronicity with the opening and closing of doors in her own life—and this door opened onto a relationship that affected her life and psyche deeply for a long time to come. Stieglitz, without her permission, put her artwork on exhibit in his gallery. When she stopped in and saw her work on his walls, she indignantly insisted he take it down. This exchange seemed to set a certain tone for their partnership: he was a controller; she was a young woman just finding her way, not yet in control, but struggling to find it. As the story unfolds, we see how the older man, then married, seduces Georgia into an affair, as much because he falls in love with her art as he does with her. Alas, Stieglitz, we soon learn, is a womanizer. Today, we call his sort sex addicts. Indeed, he and pal Auguste Rodin, also known as a womanizer, and whose sculptures (“The Thinker”) and drawings he is first on American soil to put on exhibit, exchange pornographic drawings and photos over the years, feeding each other’s seedier appetites.

The years to follow this meeting at Gallery 291 are the years of a tormented marriage. Stieglitz divorces his wife to marry Georgia, who had no interest whatsoever in marriage, but finally agrees to it—insisting she still keep her own name—more to save his reputation than her own. Stieglitz’s first wife and daughter both end up handling nervous breakdowns and mental illness brought on by his treatment of his first family. Cheat once, cheat again. And again. And yet again. The marriage of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe is riddled with affairs (his), and O’Keeffe finds her time away from him of ever greater solace. Yet there it is: for all his womanizing, Stieglitz adores his wife, loves her and will not leave her. He, in fact, is the one to deal with increasing anxiety that someday she will leave him. The affairs continue, nonetheless, with most any woman he photographs in the nude (and there are many). Finally, there is the more longstanding affair with Dorothy Norman, a young woman who takes great pleasure in tormenting the older woman and wife with her victories over Stieglitz, using and manipulating his weakness against him every chance she gets. His blatant and open involvement with this mistress eventually causes Georgia to suffer a complete nervous breakdown, requiring hospitalization, while he seems to remain weirdly oblivious to how much pain he is causing her.

Projecting perhaps more what is on his mind than on Georgia’s, Stieglitz promotes her work to the public as heavily sexualized. These aren’t just flowers she is painting … these are the damp petals of a woman’s genitalia. A white bone standing out against the sky? He saw phallic symbols. Georgia abhorred Stieglitz’s marketing of her work, yet she had to admit: it worked. It’s hard to say if her paintings would have reached such a tremendous audience if it hadn’t been for the manner of Stieglitz’s promotions. Adding to that effect, he took hundreds of photographs of his wife, many of which were in the nude. He exhibited these, too, and without her permission. She was horrified. She had agreed to the photos as a gift of intimacy to her husband alone, in part to try to regain his wandering eye and attention. This did not work, but his photos of her did have measurable affect on her growing popularity.

Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is seen as one of the first feminists, certainly in the field of art. Increasingly leaving her husband to his ways in New York, she developed her own home and life in New Mexico, in the desert she so grew to love. From a distance, she was able to continue to love him in her own way. She learned to detach herself enough that his affairs would no longer break her. She learned to find her own style, her own artistic expression on the opposite side of the country. When Stieglitz died of a heart attack, she grieved him even while embracing her solitude, her independence, her freedom. Ghost Ranch became her permanent home, and her work had sold so well, not only in the United States, but internationally, that she had become one of the wealthiest women of her time. Her personality, molded no doubt in part by an emotionally abusive relationship, hardened into a determined control over her own world and her image. Whereas Stieglitz had taken control of her image in her beginning years, now she was free to move in a direction true to her. Dropping the Freudian allusions, she focused on vibrant color, on paintings that were an expression of emotion rather than subject. She searched for simplicity, for clean lines, for the shapes she found in nature. Her work is definitely feminine, a combination of power and grace, the soft and the hard, the straight line and the gentle curve.

In her later years, the artist was known to be eccentric at times, even prickly, not allowing just anyone into her life, even while she would later grow to trust again when she should not (a portion of the book is about a younger man, John Hamilton, who takes advantage of her in her aging years, when Georgia again needs assistance in basic daily chores, and he convinces her to leave much of her estate to him).

As detailed as this biography is, and perhaps it is too much so, it did give me a much better understanding of the woman and her art. Too long, I had bought into the marketing of Stieglitz, not realizing the artist herself resented this view of her paintings, of those great, lush flowers, beautiful for their own sake, without the attachment of metaphor. If for no other reason, I am grateful to this book’s author for separating the sales pitch from the true intent of a remarkable artist. Georgia O’Keeffe accomplished the opening of a path to women artists. She stood up, and survived, and thrived, becoming an inspiration for women in abusive and stifling relationships. She showed the ability to love, if at a safe distance, even under the most callous treatment. She exhibited a woman’s ability to create out of personal suffering, and from something ugly, to develop a lasting beauty. If an oyster creates pearls out of painful grit caught in its tender flesh, so, too, does Georgia O’Keeffe create her pearls, too immense to miss, too vibrant to ignore, too unique to mistake for any other.

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