Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I

13 Jan

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman I deeply admire these days. She decided she wanted to become a painter at the age of twelve, and she not only became an accomplished painter but spent nearly her entire life developing her art, constantly learning, experimenting and changing, striving to paint in a way that was completely her own, and not mimic the art that others were making around her. Hardworking and dedicated when it came to her art, O’Keeffe worked continuously every day, never waited for the perfect moment of inspiration, and rarely allowed her negative moods or emotions to rule her day or her life. She was very patient and able to gaze at something in nature, be it a flower, a cloud, a brook, then meditate over it, soak in its every last detail and then distill the essence of her experience into her artwork. This way she created abstract paintings and drawings that were inspired by what she had seen in the natural world around her, and her own visions at the same time. This is the first part of a little series I will be making about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I will focus on things which fascinated me the most about her life; her love for Stieglitz, her love of flowers and her love of solitude.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Paintings which we today connect with Georgia O’Keeffe’s are full of colour but her early work was very different. At the academy, she painted in the realist manner which was expected of her, but privately she painted minimalist watercolours and abstract charcoal drawings which were unlike everything she had seen other artists around her painting. She was determined not to use colour until she discovers the true potential of a simple and unassuming medium such as drawing, in her own words: “I wasn’t going to use any colour until I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with charcoal or black paint.” Georgia thought that art, like music, should be inspired by nature and the real world, but separate from it and abstract in its core. She opposed copying directly what was in front of her, and her charcoals are really interesting, with repetitive shapes that seem to have been made spontaneously, without much thinking or planning before hand. Satisfied with what she has created, early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 7 Special 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 20-From Music-Special, 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915

It’s little to say that Stieglitz was captivated with what he saw; unable to utter a single word as he gazed at the drawings which seemed so fresh, exciting and new, so unlike all that he had seen before. Pollitzer wrote to Georgia about Stieglitz’s reaction: “it was a long while until his lips opened: finally a woman on paper.” Stieglitz almost instantly showed her drawing at his Midtown Manhattan art studio called “291”; the place for the scandalous and avant-garde art decades before Andy Warhol and his avant-garde at his Manhattan studio called “The Factory”. It wasn’t until May 1916 that Georgia found out that Stieglitz was showing her works at his gallery; at first she was angry about it, although she allowed the exhibition to continue, but then curiosity prevailed and she was eager to hear what it was that he loved about her drawings. From a simple letter which read: “Mr. Stieglitz, if you remember why you liked the charcoals Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you, I would like to know, if you want to tell me“, they started a correspondence that lasted throughout their lives and little they knew that a seed of love was planted in those few words; love that would blossom in the years to come.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

In autumn of 1916, Georgia was teaching art at the West Texas State Normal College and living in a small town called Canyon. She wrote Stieglitz of her long walks in nature and the beauty of the night sky and stars, and she also mentioned some tall, strong and handsome young Texans. Stieglitz was more than twenty years her senior, married, although not very happily, but enjoying his life in New York City, in the bustling streets and tall skyscrapers, in the middle of a busy art community. By the end of 1916 and in the beginning of 1917, their letters were longer and of more intimate nature, they started opening up about their fears, struggles and secrets. Each letter was a little book; Stieglitz sometimes wrote to her up to three or four times a day, and Georgia said his letters would “sometimes burst open in the mail”.

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919

They fell in love through their correspondence, and in June 1918 Georgia moved to New York City where Stieglitz provided her with a place to stay and work. He promoted her work, and in return, found in her a muse that he never had before. He took many photographs of her during their relationship, mostly lyrical nudes. On one of such photo sessions, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy walked in. She wasn’t impressed with what she had seen and demanded that he stop seeing Georgia. Completely enamored with Georgia, Stieglitz instead left his wife and the pair moved in a new flat in New York City. Days were spent in art and love. They slept separately at first but by August the passion overtook them and “they were like two teenagers in love. Several times a day they would run up the stairs to their bedroom, so eager to make love that they would start taking their clothes off as they ran.” (Richard Whelan; Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography)

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The letters they exchanged also speak of great passion, tenderness and mutual interests that kept their relationship alive throughout the years, and they range from tender and romantic longings such as this one from Georgia’s letter to Stieglitz in May 1922: “I’ll not try to say things I can’t — you must just understand — I want to put my arms round you — kiss you — let you kiss me — it’s all very quiet — what I want is very quiet — it’s great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you.” to those which were more passionate in nature such as this one, also written by Georgia: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.” They married in 1924, but didn’t live together always and that’s the reason their correspondence continued even after they started living together. All together they exchanged over 5000 letters, and they never seemed to run out of things to say. Something that Stieglitz wrote to her in June 1929 struck me as very poignant and beautiful: “I’d like to die in your arms – perhaps that’s my great wish – it always was.” She indeed was with him when he died in 1946.

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One Response to “Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I”

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  1. Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part II | Byron's muse - 24th Jan 2019

    […] the first part of my little series, I wrote about Georgia’s early charcoal drawings, her correspondence and […]

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