I remember seeing my first Georgia O’Keeffe painting when I was young and admiring the lush colors and soft, rounded shapes. It was not until I was told what it was supposed to represent that I blushed and averted my eyes. Little did I know that O’Keeffe herself despised the overly sexual interpretations of her work, and did not intend her paintings to be titillating in the way they are known now. Unfortunately, history is written by the victors, and in O’Keeffe’s case, the victors were her husband and the male critics of the day. After reading Anna Chave’s essay, O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze, for class, it was a simple thing to trace the influence of the men in the art world at the time as they twisted O’Keeffe’s work into something lurid and pornographic.
This is not to say that O’Keeffe ignored the sensuality of her work. She did not shy away from her own sexuality, reportedly often painting in the nude, nor should she have to shut away that part of herself. Her work explored a woman’s view of her own body, inside and out. That can be and was sexualized beyond what she wanted, and she often expressed discomfort at the level of sexualization assigned to her work by her husband and critics at the time. Chave wrote in her essay that “O’Keeffe’s expressions of her sexuality were appropriated and exploited by critics for their own ends, made over into mirrors of their own desires.” O’Keeffe worked during a tenuous time when women were not fully recognized as capable professionals or individuals. As such, it was easy for O’Keeffe’s husband, an art promoter, to take over her career as much as he could, marketing her work as lurid and erotic while ignoring her wishes to avoid such pornographic descriptions. In a 1916 letter, O’Keeffe wrote about her desire for a female critic to review her work, saying “What I want written….I have no definite idea of what it should be — but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living — might say something that a man can’t….”
O’Keeffe’s work is so utterly, painfully female that it’s not surprising her husband missed the point, but it is surprising the lengths he went to to make her life’s work about him. By perverting her work into expressions of sexual pleasure, he implicates himself (her partner) as her muse and the true talent behind her work. He profited heavily from her work, and so left O’Keeffe furious and despondent while he stroked his own ego. I have a chance to reverse this now, at least a small amount.
“What I want written….I have no definite idea of what it should be — but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living — might say something that a man can’t….”
— Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe’s work is in no way inherently sexual or pornographic, no more so than the plants, landscapes, and clouds they were derived from. Her goal was not to be titillating or erotic but to depict and express a woman’s body and feelings in a way only a woman could. The way she utilized macro study and negative space cemented her place in art history as one of the most notable painters that America has ever produced. O’Keeffe redefined a woman’s place on the canvas, but because her husband and his critic friends stripped away the meaning behind her work and replaced it with arousing mental imagery and pornographic descriptions in their writing, they missed the point. A woman can be a sexual being, but that is not all she is. She is a soft flower, a gash of a canyon, a towering feat of modern engineering. She is powerful and beautiful, and when I look at O’Keeffe’s work today that is what I see. Not a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a labia or vaginal folds, but the soft strength of a woman dismissed by everyone around her, painting her way into the pages of history and hoping her work would end up in front of someone who understood it.
Sources and Additional Reading
Artworks sourced from wikiart.org