Flowers, huge gigantic, bigger-than-life flowers; that’s perhaps what people remember most about the work of American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). She also painted bones; remnants of life that she found strewn across the New Mexico desert.
While the artist expressed herself brilliantly in paint, she was also very eloquent as a writer.
Who was this woman who saw, and re-created, what she saw in life, indeed what life meant to her, in such a grand scale? Was she a painter of still life images? Or did she paint metaphors of life?
O’Keeffe’s Artistic Inspiration
Quite simply, life inspired this artist – life and all that once was a vital part of life. Colours particularly inspired Georgia and it was the colours of New Mexico that instantly captured her attention. According to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum:
“She was particularly drawn to the stark, but brightly colored red and yellow hills and cliffs of the Ghost Ranch area and its flat-topped mountain, Cerro Pedernal; the white jagged cliff formations near the village of Abiquiu; the black hills of the Navajo country, some 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch; the cedar trees surrounding the Ghost Ranch house; and the bleached desert bones she collected as she roamed the desert.”
Colour was a deciding factor in Georgia’s eventual move to New Mexico. As art historian Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall points out, “O’Keeffe’s love of essences was nourished by the direct, elemental colours in the land.”
Udall then quotes the artist herself, who described the impact of New Mexico on her creative mind: “red hills of apparently the same sort of earth that you mix with oil to make paint. All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens.”
At the same time, her work was very abstract, exemplifying shapes and contours that she discovered in bones and deserted buildings. New Mexico’s open spaces and large expanse of clear, blue sky, were hypnotic. As PBS’ American Masters states, “The rich texture of the clouds and sky were similar to her earlier, more sensuous representations of flowers. But beneath these clouds one found the bleached bones of animals long gone.”
It was life, pure and simple. Life past and life present and all fascinating subjects for abstract representations of shape and colour and light.
Still Life or Metaphor of Life?
A still life is typically a work of art that depicts an inanimate subject matter; commonplace objects like food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks or shells. It is an art form that has existed since the ancient Greeks and Romans.The still life became a specialized genre in European art around the sixteenth century.
Georgia’s paintings could easily be classified as still life painting. Her works clearly fit the description of a still life. However, there is more to her flower paintings, the monumental canvases where she represents the flower images greater and larger than life. There is more to the bones and to the desert images that expand the viewer’s perspective of life, past and present.
We can also see the artist’s work as metaphor in the visual sense. She creates images of such intense and luscious colours and shapes that the viewer is hypnotized by the sensuality of the work, experiencing a personal attachment to the image, a comprehension, if you will, of some form of the meaning of life.
As Udall writes, “An obvious symbolic interpretation is that of the pressures of inner and outer forces, perhaps a visual metaphor for the conscious and unconscious. O’Keeffe lets us wonder. Even the formal elements, so clear at first, raise questions with prolonged study.”
Life as Metaphor
As noted by several O’Keeffe biographers, as well as in my book, Amazingly Extra-Ordinary Women, as a child, Georgia had a dollhouse, one that she expanded on to create a wonderful imaginary world, a parallel world to her own where everything in miniature was grander than life itself.
These were her seeds of inspiration, which, over time, developed into an artistic spirit that viewed life as if through a microscope. Her massive canvases depicted a life that was much grander than the human eye could perceive.
As Udall writes, “The task seems an impossible contradiction in terms, and would be for anyone unable to maintain the delicate balance she achieves between representation and abstraction, between her love for physical objects and her ethereality, between symbolic content and formal considerations.”
Life as metaphor, life as bigger than life itself: that was the art of Georgia O’Keeffe. This artist continues to inspire and amaze the world.