We went to see the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern last year. At the time, I didn’t know much about her, other than the fact she was famous for painting flowers. And that people get a bit hot under the collar about what those paintings might represent. Was the art world of the 1920s and 1930s so repressed that it managed to get into a lather about some paintings of flowers? And more importantly, are they any good?

In answer to the first question, yes. However this was in part due to the relentless self-promotion of photographer and gallery owner Arthur Stiglitz. Later he would become Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband, but at first, he was the man who seized upon this somewhat dubious yonic re-interpretation of flower close-ups. He promoted it relentlessly, and whether it was true or not, it ensured that O’Keeffe’s star was well and truly made.

The answer to the second question is also yes. For me, the paintings are aesthetically beautiful. Moreover, I thought they were interesting enough to set aside all the extra semiotics and just appreciate them. With a painting like Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow (c. 1923), you can see why the fuss was made, but you can also step back and enjoy it as a beautiful piece of abstract art without anyone calling you a letch. Or at least, I hope you can, because we now have it on a magnet on our fridge.

Besides, the idea of finding echoes of human sexuality within flowers is fairly obvious from a biological standpoint. But perhaps in a time with less science education and a greater wariness of female sexuality, this was a potent combination that allowed Stiglitz and O’Keeffe to make a living from their art. The beauty of the exhibition was that it also allowed for O’Keeffe’s other art to be considered, not just those flower paintings.

In many ways, there were echoes of the Roy Lichtenstein show; after all, it took place in the same rooms. For Lichtenstein, the pop works drew massive crowds and you had to jostle for elbow room while viewing them1. The same was true of the rooms with the flower paintings in this show. But as with Lichtenstein, the crowds dispersed as you entered the rooms with the later works. This is great if you are like Ingrid and I, who like to linger over less famous works.

I really enjoyed the desert paintings, which were as varied as the flower paintings. Adding photographs of the same scenery was a nice touch. The paintings of clouds from above2 might seem commonplace now we can all snap them on Easyjet, but they nonetheless have an intricate beauty that comes from being filtered through the mind of an artist. The exhibition also had some great photography sections with work by both Stiglitz and O’Keeffe’s long time friend Ansel Adams. This added an extra dimension to the biographical detail throughout.

  1. At least both Lichtenstein and O’Keeffe painted on huge canvasses, the Paul Klee show in 2013 seemed even more crowded because the major works were pretty tiny by comparison. 

  2. Flights to Europe inspired O’Keeffe to paint these works.