Following in Georgia O’Keeffe’s footsteps
15 Jan 2019 - 11:01 BY The Arts Society
Georgia O’Keeffe with Painting in the Desert, N.M., 1960. Tony Vaccaro. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2007.3.2. Photo: Tony Vaccaro/Tony Vaccaro Studio
The artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) needs little introduction. Her paintings of the New Mexico desert landscapes, magnified flowers and animal skulls earned her a place as the most celebrated female artist of 20th-century American Modernism. I am both a landscape painter and an art historian, fascinated by O’Keeffe and her idiosyncratic interpretations of that landscape.
Lydia Bauman in her studio. Photo Matthew Booth
In late 2016 I stood among the paintings of the New Mexico desert in the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern and asked myself: to what extent did her paintings represent the true character of that landscape?
I resolved to travel to the country the artist called ‘my backyard’ to check it out for myself. What would it be like to find myself in a place so thoroughly appropriated by another – and much celebrated – artist? What did O’Keeffe respond to; and what did she leave out? How would our different methods serve the character of the land? How important is it to know a place well in order to paint it successfully?
‘What would it be like to find myself in a place so thoroughly appropriated by another – and much celebrated – artist?’
Fired by these questions, and after months of preparation, I set off to New Mexico in September 2017, in search of Georgia.
Lydia Bauman, Ghost Ranch Diptych (left panel), 2018. Photo Matthew Booth
It was moving to follow in her footsteps. I learned from looking at and sketching the very locations where she lived, walked and painted, comparing them directly to her paintings. I discovered that, far from embracing the grandeur and visceral physicality of the desert, she preferred an abstracted design of smooth, simplified shapes and colours, painted in oils on modestly sized canvases – the only scale possible with a Ford car as a mobile studio.
Georgia O’Keeffe, The Mountain, New Mexico © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Digital Image © Whitney Museum, New York
I was surprised to discover just how much she edited and cropped her viewpoints, and compressed space. I concluded that she must have been influenced by certain photographic effects, observed in the work of her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, with whom she had worked closely in New York.
I realised that no amount of familiarity and love for a place, which O'Keeffe often professed to have, could have helped her to evoke its spirit in the face of the overwhelming modernist tendency for flattened form and abstracted design, which was sweeping across Europe and America in the early 20th century. How else had she been able to ride the wave of the avant-garde while living in isolation in the desert, had her eye not been firmly fixed on the artistic hub of New York?
‘How else had she been able to ride the wave of the avant-garde while living in isolation in the desert, had her eye not been firmly fixed on the artistic hub of New York?’
Her distinctive, modernist interpretations of the desert of New Mexico made that landscape her own and turned it, for us, into the ‘Georgia O'Keeffe country’ it is today. Ironically, it seems to me, in the process of making it so, O’Keeffe sacrificed its true character.
Lydia Bauman, Plaza Blanca, Abiquiu NM, 2018. Photo Matthew Booth
While my understanding of O'Keeffe's contribution to American Modernism deepened, my own short relationship with the New Mexico desert, free from the pull of artistic influences, allowed me a more direct and personal response to what turned out to be the most challenging and dramatic landscape I have ever painted. The task I set myself was to reinterpret the self-same identifiable landscape motifs that once inspired O’Keeffe, adding rich texture, powerful light effects, a sense of volume, scale and new viewpoints essential to the representation of a land that overpowers, humbles and assails all the senses.
In the process of exploring the limitless vistas of New Mexico I found myself taking my own painting practice to its limits, resorting to bigger scale and unusual formats, such as diptychs, and expanding the range of my techniques. As a painter I have set out to enrich our perception of this landscape; and as an art historian, to inform my Georgia O'Keeffe lectures with a deeper understanding of the life and art of the woman I discovered on my great adventure.
See Looking for Georgia, the exhibition of Lydia Bauman’s paintings from this project, at the Mall Galleries, London, 25 February–2 March 2019; mallgalleries.org.uk. For more on Lydia’s work, visit lydiabauman.com
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, an exhibition of the artist’s paintings, clothing and photographs, is on show at the Cleveland Museum of Art until 3 March. For more information, visit clevelandart.org
Visit The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, USA; okeeffemuseum.org
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