Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Black Place

'As soon as I saw it, that was my country.  I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fitted me exactly.  It's something that's in the air, it's just different.  The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.'  Compare this to the passage I posted a week ago: Ingmar Bergman discovering Fårö ('this is your landscape, Bergman.  It corresponds to your internal imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections.')  The artist this time is Georgia O'Keeffe and the place New Mexico.  She wrote about experiencing a physical connection: 'my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills.'  It is tempting to contrast this bodily response with the more cerebral Bergman, but he included 'exertion, relaxation, breathing' in the attributes of his special landscape.  And of course the idea that O'Keeffe's art could be read reductively in terms of her own body has been comprehensively criticised in recent years.  The Guardian's preview of a retrospective here in London was headlined 'Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe Tate show to challenge sexual cliches.'

Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

We had a good look round this exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday and got the sense of an artist engaged with New Mexico's indigenous inhabitants and culture as well as it's shapes and shadows, hard blue skies and extraordinary colours.  Olivia Laing wrote a great piece about O'Keeffe that describes her first experience of the place. 'Back in 1929 she had spent a summer in Taos with the painter Beck Strand. The pair were taken up by a community of powerfully independent women, among them Mabel Dodge Luhan, the formidable heiress and art patron, and the Hon Dorothy Brett, a stone-deaf Englishwoman who carried a knife in her boots.'  It sounds fun, although O'Keeffe arrived in Taos too late to encounter D. H. Lawrence.  She did paint The Lawrence Tree (1929) though, with a viewpoint right up its trunk and into the night sky.  In Tate Magazine artist Lucy Stein writes of this painting that 'the mental image that this summons of two of the titans of nature-worshipping modernism having cosmic and sexy thoughts beneath this ancient pine is as intoxicating as the picture itself.'

I will conclude here with a longer quote from Olivia Laing on the New Mexico period (I would agree with what she says here of the potential strengths and weaknesses of these paintings).  O'Keeffe's work is in copyright but you can see the painting referred to on The Guardian site
“As you come to it over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants – grey hills all about the same size with almost white sand at their feet,” O’Keeffe wrote of the Black Place, a remote landscape that inspired her more than any other location. The paintings she made there tip geological form over the threshold of abstraction: the serried hills smashed into shards of grey and puce, bifurcated by yolk-coloured cracks or spills of oily black.
'Hills like elephants sounds an echo of Hemingway, and there is something of his habits of compression at work in O’Keeffe, a desire to erase everything extraneous, to convey emotion without confessing it directly. She painted very flat, making surfaces so smooth she once compared the sensation to roller-skating. The risk is blandness, but it can also produce – The Black Place, 1943, say – cleanly assembled structures that quiver with unvoiced feeling.'

1 comment:

Hels said...

1918 was a perfect date for your photo. I am sure that was when the two artists met and took a serious, scholarly interest in each mother's work. No wonder Stieglitz wanted to mount exhibitions of her work, before he was divorced from his first wife, after he married Georgia and even after she was off, travelling around the globe.

Art and Architecture, mainly