Art gallery visit – Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern. OCA study visit.

Georgia O’Keeffe has not been a favourite of mine, but I’ve realised if I attend a study visit about someone thats never really lit my fire, I come away with a new insight and appreciation of the artist.

Before the visit, I only knew of her flower paintings, which I considered to be too even layered, lacking in texture and flat. Also too over stylised and over simplified.

Seeing them in the flesh, and chatting with our tutor Bryan Eccleshall soon changed my perception!

This is the famous ‘Jimson weed’ sold for 32 million recently and painted in 1932. Far from looking flat, in real life its strong shapes kind of suck you in. From standing in front of it, drawing it, I realised how the outer petal tendrils curl so delicately one way and the inner stamens the other. So your eye gets taken round in different ways. This is balanced by the geometrical shapes of the leaves. On one side the are so ordered they could be a ladder or a green book cupboard! Far from looking  flat, standing in front of it I can see how cleverly the paint is blended and how this must have taken weeks of work to do. It looks a very loving homage to this common weed flower! It has a feeling of sereneness about it. Its a sort of stylised abstraction – its not real life but its an interesting twist on it.

This is a small painting, from exactly 100 years ago. but I was immediately drawn in by the strong vibrant colours. Only 3 colours are used including prussian blue. There are some strong blunt borders, and some deliberate ‘cauliflowers’ at the foreground to cleverly represent foliage. If it were technically perfect it would not be half as interesting as in the end, it is 3 bands of colour!

This was painted in 1925. The harsh lines of the man made buildings contrast with the undulating cloudy sky. The focal point is the light, and this leads your eye upwards. I was drawn in by the perspective, as it makes the buildings look odd shapes. The sky is framed by the buildings and is a clever use of composition which I need to think about in my work.

This painting is of the Canadian landscape she visited, and is an abstraction of the rolling skies and turbulent water. The brush work I could see in odd places really stood out, I feel she wanted that effect, as the rest is so much flatter. I stood drawing these whirling, curving shapes and it was hard to do. There feels a real harmony in the colours and how the shapes interact.

I found this painting intriguing, because the strong colours within it make the perspective odd when you stand in front of it. the blue background mountains are a stronger cobalt blue than in reproduction and appear nearer to you. The foreground has vibrant warm greens and flesh like colours. She painted a lot around her house in New Mexico, living quite a solitary life at times, taking off in her car and coming back with a painted canvas. Her strong connection to this landscape is obvious. Interestingly, she was not well known with local people, including local art circles. There are no figures in this landscape.

This is a larger painting, and the clouds look so substantial and white at the front, that I felt I could walk on them like stepping stones. Towards the back, they recede by fluffier edges and being mixed with a little pink and blue. The horizon is a soft pink and really does remind me of being on an aeroplane at dawn. Ofcourse, its not realistic again, she’s twisted it in an abstract way but I find myself flowing up and over these clouds to the horizon.

This is intriguing, because the part of interest is a hole! It’s a pelvis bone she found hwen out and about. I liked the optical illusion of not knowing if I’m looking up through the sky or the sky is bulging down at me like a blue balloon coming through the hole. It’s a simple but clever composition.

Of the exhibition as whole, I liked the way the work was in a chronological order, as it allowed me to see how she developed over the years into the very abstract works of her later years. Her use of colour seemed to be quite ‘feminine’ pastel colours, but as Bryan pointed out, which came first – her paintings, or colours being labelled as feminine?

She paints large scale on small sized canvases. Flowers are zoomed up to, or whole mountains fitted on to a domestic sized canvas. This surprised me. The stylised way of painting seemed quite American to me, as contemporary American painters seem to favour this, which makes me think she was very influential. Certainly not the European more painterly style. Made me think more of Edward Hopper.

Ideas I could steal? Composition and strong use of colour definitely.

Seeing it in the flesh was far more interesting than in books. The odd brush stoke here and there makes it appear more ‘human’. Reproductions make the paintings look like they could have been done digitally, and in fact they are far more delicate and interesting than that.

A very interesting study visit, and as with Stanley Spencer, I have come away with a whole new insight into this artist.


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