Thirty years ago today, Georgia O'Keeffe died at the age of 98.
She was a pioneer of modern art, a woman unwilling to sacrifice her own innovative vision to trends in the art world. Her career spanned seven decades and gave the world fresh views of arresting landscapes, magnified flowers and bleached bones... and yet, to many she is best known as the woman who painted flowers that looked like vaginas.
Throughout her career, Ms. O'Keeffe denied the popular Freudian interpretation of her paintings of flowers. She even steadfastly rejected proposals of cooperation from feminists who celebrated what they believed was the inclusion of female iconography in her art.
Instead, she explained her approach to the paintings as a focus on a flower's essence: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else… Nobody really sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time… So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.”
If only they had taken the time to examine other ways of interpreting it. While the case can be made for there being an erotic aspect to her flowers, it seems strange that this would be the only interpretation, especially in the face of her outright rejection of the theory. It is also absurd to anchor her reputation as an artist on just one aspect of a full and vibrant career.
Achim Borchard-Hume, Director of Exhibitions at the Tate Modern, believes trivialization of a great talent would not have occurred had Georgia O'Keeffe been a man.
"O'Keeffe has been very much reduced to one particular body of work, which tends to be read in one particular way," he told The Guardian. "Many of the white male artists across the 20th century have the privilege of being read on multiple levels, while others – be they women or artists from other parts of the world – tend to be reduced to one conservative reading. It’s high time that galleries and museums challenge this.”
The Tate Modern is aiming to do just that this summer with an exhibition that will mark a full century since Ms. O'Keeffe's first exhibit in New York.