Books in the Background 6: Georgia O'Keeffe

Ron Berman


            Social histories of the twenties often account for opinions by referring to the response of groups to headline events. Many of these histories use familiar rubrics: the boom, the consumerism it induced, the moral and stylistic changes affecting different generations. The "Introduction to the Volume" of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 3, 1926-1929 mentions an alternative, suggesting that "a social and historical record" can be construed through individual perceptions. The Introduction concludes that Hemingway's letters and fiction are reliable evidence for the cost, nature, and value of things he observed.  The Introduction concludes that Hemingway's letters and fiction are reliable evidence for the cost, nature, and value of things he observed.  His contemporary John Maynard Keynes realized the importance of such empirical response. Keynes was trying to illustrate the failure of low prices to relieve low incomes and decided that literature might convey the right meaning (and attitude): "When Dr. Johnson, visiting the Island of Skye, was told that twenty eggs might be bought for a penny, he said, 'Sir, I don't gather from this that eggs are plenty in your miserable Island, but that pence are few." Graphs and equations would not have shown how general ideas are connected to individual experiences. 


Georgia O'KeeffeBy Nancy J. Scott.  London: Reaktion Books, 2015. 253 pp.  $16.95.

            Reaktion Books (London) is associated with the University of Chicago Press. The current list of Critical Lives includes Susan Sontag (2014) by Jerome Boyd Maunsell and the very good Ludwig Wittgenstein (2007) by Edward Kanterian.  These books combine criticism with the evidence of conversations, journals, and letters.  The O'Keeffe book covers her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz and her web of connection to artists, museums, and patrons. Some of that is known already but the book adds forceful evidence from letters that have recently become available. Those letters and other records make observations on herself, on those who meant something in her life, and on American social history. The issue at the center of O'Keeffe's life is her work. But we are left with the why and how a mid-western artist learned her modernist trade, became a figure of the 1920s, went through a cycle of friends and lovers, maintained a correspondence with writers and painters, and managed to sell her work after retreating from the big world to a place independent of it.   

            Edmund Wilson became an admirer of both O'Keefe and Stieglitz; his essay on their exhibition in the Anderson Gallery in New York (1925) is in The American Earthquake. His coverage of their work is more lucid than that of the New Yorker and contemporary newspapers—but there is more to the story. Wilson discovered the Midwest just when Georgia O'Keefe was an unwilling part of it. In 1917, he wrote some letters to friends while stationed at Base Hospital 36, near Detroit.  It was about provincial America, a country entirely new to him:

I spend two-thirds of the week cursing the results of American civilization . . . as manifested in the unbeautiful and ungracious figures of my camp companions and the other third berating a group (exceptional in America, I admit) where the daughters know apparently literally nothing about anything except the pleasant, the gentle, and the nice.  They are so pretty, so fine, and so ill educated: they know that woman's place is in the home and have no other desire or aim except to exhibit the domestic virtues.  The age, the nation has passed them by; they are little girls at twenty.

But there were always les voix du silence. Here is O'Keefe on being mid-western in 1916:

I grew up pretty much as every [sic] else grows up and one day seven years ago found myself saying to myself - I can't live where I want to - I can't go where I want to - I can't do what I want to - I can't even say what I want to - School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to.  I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to - So these paintings and drawings happened and many others that are not here. - I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say in any other way - things that I had no words for.  (96)

            Her critics often alluded to the Freudian shapes and symbols in her work, but they may have had the wrong texts on their minds.  O'Keeffe was more connected to Civilization and Its Discontents than to The Interpretation of Dreams. We find out a great deal about the agonies of dealing with patrons and working for displays of corporations. Albert Stieglitz is himself an entire subject, Pygmalion with too many Galateas. Scott's explanation of their combined exhibitions is very good, and helps understand personal relationships and the marketplace for visual arts.  However, personal feelings are sometimes explained as if they were caused by public issues. The normal unhappiness of life is attributed without much proof to the Depression or fascism or the Second World War.

            The central problem of O'Keeffe's life artistically and otherwise was to assimilate the "influences" of modern art without becoming anyone's disciple. But even the favorable critics were a dead weight on her mind.  They wanted a feminist, a nature worshiper, a saintly moralist who had discovered "the secrets of the universe."  They got one of the best modern minds focused on the problems of form and spatiality. The reception of her work in New York in 1923 had enraged her: 

The Freudian and sexual interpretations of her work that followed became inescapable fodder for critics and paralleled the fascination with the 'New Woman' of the 1920s, a subject of both fear and desire.  The writing of Stieglitz acolytes followed.  First the artist Marsden Hartley published Adventures in the Arts in 1921 . . . . His overwrought phrases on O'Keeffe limned a personal, painful image as he compared the artist to Teresa of Avila, the Spanish saint of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous sculpture, pierced by an arrow.  (90-91)

That was relatively mild compared to other New York critics.  O'Keefe's conversations and letters are about perceptions methodically expressed. She was dispassionate and described (as well as depicted)  landscape technically conceived, suggesting why monochrome mattered to an austere mind.  She reminds critics of painting's constituent parts: "there it is, color, form, rhythm" (103).  We remind ourselves of the presence of critics and columnists in Hemingway's works who do not understand objects, experiences, performances, and eventually meanings.

            Scott points out that O'Keeffe brought modernism with her to New Mexico, "tools and techniques" of "magnification influenced by photography"; and a kind of  "unfurling" of motifs on large canvases that allowed her to view familiar things made new.  Her use of enlargement resulted in "forceful shapes" of natural objects turned into abstractions. She took from photographers like Paul Strand a technique variously described as "cutting," "cropping," "editing," or "framing" to separate subject from inessential background.  Gerald Murphy did the same, and is described by Calvin Tomkins removing the pictorial background and rendering "particular natural details seen with absolute accuracy and as though for the first time."  Hemingway's 1926 letter to Fitzgerald about revising The Sun Also Rises is not entirely about the problem of narrative: "I cut The Sun to start with Cohn—cut all that first part. made a number of minor cuts and did quite a lot of re-writing and tightening up.  Cut and in the proof it read like a good book."  O'Keeffe thought that art should be "reductive" and that "nothing is less real" than the accumulation of detail that goes into realism.  It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things (102).


Ron Berman 10/10/2016

How to cite this blog in MLA 8: 

Author's Last Name, Author's First Name. "Title of Post."  THR Blog, The Hemingway Foundation and Society, Date blog was published, Link to blog entry (omit http:// or https://).