Georgia O’Keeffe has been in my life such a long time, I was maybe 15 or 16 when I first came across her. I think I collected a postcard of one of her paintings. It was a time when I thought a trip to the National Gallery shop to buy postcards constituted a conscientious effort on my part to do research for a project. I never actually saw her work ‘in the flesh’.
I totally failed at my Art and Design GCSE, a lack of effort on the course work clearly showed through and is hardly surprising judging by the confession in my first paragraph. Looking back now I can see how I wasted an opportunity, but the written word shone through for me, I did well at English and History, art was an extra and an add on.
The strange thing is that Georgia O’Keeffe has stayed with me, there was something about that first encounter, a simple postcard that completely captured me. It was art that I didn’t know could exist, art that was clean and fresh and modern to my eyes, not the historical painters of old. Before 15 I had never gone to an art gallery or art exhibition, this was uncharted territory, but that postcard sparked something in me that I have carried all this time.
There was a quote of hers that inspired me, it hit me so profoundly I wrote it in the diaries I kept, year after year.
“I have things in my head, that are not like what anyone has taught me. Shapes and ideas so near to me, so natural to my way of thinking that is hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
I have dug around in my wardrobe and found two diaries from 1995 and 1996. I was 20/21 and they were written 2o years ago. I found her quote on the inside pages, as fresh as the day I wrote it, that is what she meant to me. One postcard and one quote.
I took inspiration from her, for a young woman I took it as an invitation to be brave, to think your own thoughts, to not be scared to voice what seems natural to you. Looking back on a 20 year old me and thinking of the older version, that quote it is still powerful. Now that I write so often, that quote has even more resonance with me. It still tells me not to be afraid, to let my thoughts flow. I am sure my 20 year old self would never have dreamed I would be writing like this now. It may have taken a bit of meandering but now in 2016 I am as true as I can be to her words.
It is all I wanted it to be, and more, more, more. I can’t describe what it was like as the entrance came into view, the excitement. I don’t think I have ever wanted to visit an exhibition this much. A rare thing for me, I take the audio guide, I want to savour every moment, I want to learn everything.
It is so funny, often I visit exhibitions on press previews and there are only a handful of people. I once visited Frank Auerbach at the Tate Britain and I was completely on my own. Here the first room is busy and bustling, but as I stand in front of ‘Special no 9 – charcoal on paper, 1915’ it is like I am alone in the room. I could just stay in this room and never need to visit any other in the exhibition. It is a joy to be here finally, to see this stranger’s work that I has touched me so much.
It is all here for me, the known and the unknown, the flowers and skulls, the abstract and the undulating landscapes. The audio guide and the text are my teacher, what a 15 year old girl would not have understood, I come to as a woman. The relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and partner of 30 years is intriguing. His photography and relationship with her and her art is such a fundamental part of her.
She did not appreciate or accept the eroticism so often linked to her work, but through Stieglitz’s nude photos you can see why this association sprung to critics minds.
“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Georgia O’Keeffe
It was fascinating to learn of her art education and training. I always thought her work was an instinctive rendering by her mind, those thoughts that were unlike anyone else’s. Now I can see her work framed in an understanding of what went before, and yet also an understanding that what she saw and wanted to paint was so different whilst also being natural to her way of thinking.
I relished reading of the link to Synaesthesia and her reading of Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Art of spiritual harmony’. I have touched on Synaesthesia’s link to autism recently in my blog on ‘States of Mind’ at the Wellcome Collection. O’Keeffe, a gifted musician, had chosen to focus on painting but sound and music is there in her work. ‘Red and Orange Streak’ 1919, is her attempt at capturing sound, the stimulation of one sense by another and I find her paintings are like a kind of music to me.
Hearing O’Keeffe’s voice on the audio guide is a treat, she is my intimate guide on a pilgrimage I have been waiting to make half my life. There is a flow and fluidity and freshness to her work even with pieces nearly 100 years old that leaves me entranced. A symmetry that pulls at my heart and mind, but almost as powerful as the recognisable richness of the beauty of nature in her flowers is ‘Untitled – dry waterfall, Ghost Ranch. 1943’. Here a charcoal sketch of a few lines shows a lifetime of observing and capturing that is laid bare in a few simple strokes.
There are schoolgirls in the exhibition around the age I was when I first found O’Keeffe, I envy the access they have. I wonder what grade I would have got at GCSE art if I had been to this exhibition in my formative years, what impact would it have had? If one postcard and one quote has sustained me all these years, what would this experience have meant?
As art history is dropped at A-Level and as art as a subject is besmirched and denigrated, I wonder at my own examination record and career. I took ‘solid’ subjects to master’s level, I had ‘proper’ jobs, but arguably one of the most sustaining influences from these years is the art and creativity of O’Keeffe and a failed art GCSE. If you take that away you are shutting the door that may only be opened a tiny crack, but the light that shines through can draw you in years later. Now 20 years on as I shove that door well and truly open I am bathed in the glorious light of Georgia O’Keeffe and it feels as if I have waited all my life to get here.
Georgia O’Keeffe is on at the Tate Modern 6 July – 30 October 2016
For opening times and tickets please see the website – http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/georgia-okeeffe
Also worth a read –
A prayer for art history – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/a-prayer-for-art-history-gpbbb6xft