Georgia O’Keeffe, or artistic personal branding from a century ago
“Men consider me to be the best female painter. And I think I am one of the best painters,” Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the pioneers of American modernist painting, was reported to say of herself. Long before Instagram existed, O’Keeffe was the ‘curator’ of her own artistic persona, remarkably consistent and distinctive. She built her recognisable aesthetic brand at a time when moodboards and visual identities did not yet exist.
Just over six years ago, on 20 November 2014, the title of the most expensive female artist of all time was earned – and is still borne today – by the prominent painter and populariser of American culture, Georgia O’Keeffe. During an auction at Sotheby’s in New York, an anonymous collector participating in the auction by telephone paid for the work “White Flower No. 1” dated 1932, nearly 45 million dollars – market experts estimated its value at up to one third of this amount. The fight was fierce, with as many as seven bidders bidding for the painting. The final amount, announced after the final “third time”, came as a great surprise to both auction participants and the art world experts.
Who was the author of this work? How did she become so famous, that a mysterious buyer was prepared to pay a considerable fortune for one of her paintings? To many Europeans, the name Georgia O’Keeffe may sound unfamiliar, but in American culture she is an almost iconic figure. And this is not only due to her extraordinary, innovative painting style.
Georgia was born under the great open sky – on a farm near Sun Prairie in the vast wilderness of the state of Wisconsin. She was born in 1887 as the second of seven children of an immigrant couple with Irish and Hungarian roots. However, although she had quite a few siblings, she enjoyed playing alone the most. “Georgia is the boss,” one of her younger sisters used to say. Almost from the beginning, our heroine was an overly serious, strict and resolute little girl for her age. At the age of 12, O’Keeffe tells a friend without any hesitation, that she already knows what she will be when she grows up: an artist.
The parents supported their children’s education and intellectual development – educating the girls was in fact a family tradition. In her early teens, Georgia and her sisters commenced drawing lessons. Mr and Mrs O’Keeffe took note of her distinctive talent compared to her siblings and suggested that she continue her studies at an art school. The young O’Keeffe therefore developed her skills under the tutelage of a local watercolourist, and in the following years she attended the Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, run by nuns. There she encountered the harsh discipline and strict rules adhered to by the sisters, which to some extent seem to have shaped her later character and public image.
Although Mr. and Mrs. O’Keeffe were not wealthy, they fulfilled their eldest daughter’s greatest dream and immediately after her high school graduation sent her to study at the Art Institute in Chicago and then at the then highly prestigious Art Students League in New York. In America’s largest metropolis, the less-than-twenty-year-old Georgia, a provincial girl, enjoyed big-city life for a while – she especially enjoyed attending all-night dance parties with her bohemian artist friends. However, it soon became clear to her that after these decadent parties she could not paint for three days… Determined, ambitious and trained in self-discipline, O’Keeffe therefore chose to paint.
One might think that it was the period of studying in the American capital of culture and art that opened the doors to O’Keeffe’s success as an artist. Georgia O’Keeffe, however, quickly left New York and settled back in the province, taking a job as a… teacher. She moved deeper and deeper into the American South: to Virginia, Carolina, and finally to Texas and New Mexico, whose harsh desert landscapes she loved more than life. She painted only for herself – she believed that the leading trends in art at the time limited what she wanted to convey in her paintings, which were increasingly moving towards an extremely sensual abstraction. Her discovery by the general public was somewhat accidental. While working away from New York, Georgia corresponded with Anita Pollitzer, a well-known suffragette and lifelong friend of the artist, whom she had met during her studies. In 1915 Pollitzer, having received her works on paper from O’Keeffe enclosed in a letter, showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer and art dealer who ran New York’s Gallery 291. Located in the heart of Manhattan, the gallery was considered one of the most avant-garde at the time, not only in the United States but on both sides of the Atlantic. Stieglitz was amazed by O’Keeffe’s drawings. At the last minute, he included her work in an upcoming exhibition – and without asking the artist’s permission. As the art dealer recounted years later, a young woman dressed in a black dress, who looked like the Mona Lisa, appeared in his gallery after the opening and firmly demanded that the works be removed from the exhibition. It was the first public showing of the work of the then unknown 28-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe. So she made her debut in one of the best galleries of her time – but despite this, she showed no gratitude to her “discoverer”, quite the opposite: she was outraged. Initially enchanted by her art, Alfred Stieglitz soon became fascinated by the proud and rebellious artist herself, with her strong character and steadfast belief in what she was doing. Thus began their acquaintance by correspondence, which soon turned into a long-term relationship. From then on, Stieglitz was most keen to capture Georgia and her paintings in his photographic works, thus becoming a committed promoter of his partner’s work.
Georgia O’Keeffe lived to the impressive age of 99 – she died in 1986 – as an artist highly regarded by both critics and a wide amateur audience. Even in her lifetime, she was called the mother of American modernism. Over many decades, in addition to consistently developing her own painting style, she has also created a distinctive, original and, above all, one hundred percent authentic self-image. Her art was not confined to the plane limited by the rectangle of a canvas: O’Keeffe also created and marked an entire reality that surrounded her, with her own style. The interior decoration of her beloved homes, her wardrobe and even her diet were inextricably linked to what – and how – she painted.
In her highly sensuous paintings, she depicted flowers at high magnification, shell interiors, animal bones or rocky, almost empty landscapes, as if heated up and pulsating in the sun. All these elements, however, took on highly simplified forms, often verging on abstraction, so that it is sometimes difficult to decipher what they actually represent. It was in the supple lines and colour gradients – sometimes subtle, at other times exploding with a frenzy of colour – that Georgia O’Keeffe was able to capture the expression of nature’s vital forces, which she seemed to feel with all her being. Her paintings of the sensual interiors of flower calyces are not without reason interpreted as analogies for female sexuality. The artist, so strongly connected to nature and its rhythms, seemed to blur the boundaries between the world of plants, animals and people – and as a woman she explored particularly strongly the theme of the female element in nature or the archetype of the “mother earth”. In her art, sensuality and spirituality blend seamlessly in the form of modern, modernist visual solutions. There is, however, no provocation here, no coquetry, no eroticism intended for the male gaze, which critics of the interwar period – the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis – were eager to find in her work. O’Keeffe was decades ahead of feminist art, although her work was not an ideological declaration, but an honest, thoroughly personal statement, unfiltered through the prism of scientific theories.
An independent artist, consciously turning her back on the big-city lifestyle, the art gallery circuit and the social coteries, she lived almost entirely alone in the sandy wilderness in the midst of what she loved the most: art and the sun-scorched earth. Although with her fame she could easily have become an art-world celebrity, she chose the simple life that suited her needs. In her own words: “to live here – that’s what happiness is. When I think of dying, my only regret is that I will never see this beautiful land again. Unless the Indians are right and my spirit will return, when I am no longer here.” In 1940, O’Keeffe bought her own property at Ghost Ranch (which served as her summer home for years to come) and then an abandoned hacienda in the nearby town of Abiquiú, New Mexico. She settled there permanently after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1946. She roamed the endless deserts alone, mostly on horseback, sometimes in her old Ford, or even on a motorbike. She looked at what remained of the culture and architecture of the Pueblo Indians who lived in the area, blended into the rocky landscapes.
The house she furnished for herself in Abiquiú was a tribute to the indigenous people of the American Southwest. In its interior design, the artist skilfully combined natural materials that have been used by the local people for centuries (sun-dried brick walls, wood and clay) with minimalist furniture design from the second half of the 20th century, e.g. by Eero Saarinen. O’Keeffe decorated the interior with the found objects she was so fond of depicting in her paintings: it was full of unusual stones, boughs with fancifully tangled branches, bones and skulls of desert animals and, last but not least, her beloved flowers in full bloom.
The modernist painter living in a Wild West desert ranch, was also passionate about healthy eating and what we would nowadays call an eco or zero-waste lifestyle. Although it was not easy in this climate, O’Keeffe was passionate about cultivating her own garden. She was also a keen cook, using mainly what she grew herself. Her cuisine was like herself: simple, austere and ahead of its time. Her diet was rich in whole-grain bread, vegetable soups, fruit, herbs and health-promoting smoothies – all at a time when the western world was enthralled by fast food, microwave ovens and the famous canned soup portrayed by Warhol. In this respect, paradoxically, Georgia O’Keeffe was both a traditionalist and a pioneer at the same time.
Finally, her dress style was also equally consistent and defined. It is said that even as a child she stood out from the other inhabitants of a small town in Wisconsin with her appearance and fashion choices. From her teenage years, she eagerly adopted elements of men’s wardrobe: hats, shirts, jackets and oxford shoes. For the rest of her life she had long hair – first raven black, then grey – which she wore tied up in a tight bun just above the nape of her neck. Her favourite colours? Black and white, of course. Georgia was not keen on ephemeral fashions: the current season’s hairstyles, make-up or cuts. Her trademark was the uncompromising naturalness of her noble facial features, “sculpted” by the wind and emphasised by her southern tan. The painter’s ascetic image consisted of simple, drab outfits almost devoid of accessories (with the exception of her beloved spiral brooch made by Alexander Calder) – but in fact she paid a great deal of attention to small details, that gave character to the whole. As in the culinary art, so in fashion O’Keeffe was self-sufficient: she personally sewed her own clothes, which distinguished her and emphasised her individuality. She opted for minimalism, creating a both practical and innovative “capsule wardrobe”, where all the pieces could be freely combined so that they would always fit together. Does this sound familiar?Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter who impetuously entered the art world over a century ago, remains to this day its hard-to-grasp phenomenon. Maintaining an unprecedented (especially in the case of women artists of her time) degree of independence and determination, she consistently shaped both her own creative quest as well as her image and position in the male-dominated art world. Long before Instagram existed, O’Keeffe was the ‘curator’ of her own artistic persona, remarkably consistent and distinctive. She built her recognisable aesthetic brand at a time when moodboards and visual identities did not yet exist. However, it cannot be said that it was merely a form of self-promotion or a calculated, success-driven creation. On the contrary; the artist has never lost sight of what is most important: her own authenticity.