"Untamable Texts": The Art of Georgia O'Keeffe and Eudory Welty
Claxton, Mae Miller, The Mississippi Quarterly
ALMOST TWO DECADES AFTER HER DEATH, Georgia O'Keeffe continues to be one of the most popular American artists of the twentieth century. We hang reproductions of her paintings in our homes, classrooms, and offices and record appointments in date books featuring her work. While the art of Eudora Welty is not as ubiquitous as O'Keeffe's, she continues to exert a quiet yet important influence on many current writers, and her works continue to be widely read and admired. Welty greatly admired O'Keeffe, naming dance pioneer Martha Graham and O'Keeffe as the women she respects most. She explained in an interview: "For reasons plain to all--among them, common to both, an inviolate independence of spirit in pursuing their arts, the wholeness of their gifts of the imagination." (1) Like O'Keeffe, Welty often chose nature as a subject for her art. Both artists explore issues of gender and sexuality through the portrayal of nature in their works. They employ conventional subject matter for women, flowers and gardens, to create complex texts. Placing O'Keeffe's paintings next to Welty's stories helps us understand how these two important artists pushed their work beyond conventional borders.
Georgia O'Keeffe faced ongoing controversy about her personal and artistic life from the time of her arrival in New York City in 1918. Previously, she had corresponded with Alfred Stieglitz and showed him some of her work. Stieglitz was already an important part of the art community in New York. (2) He was well-known for his work in photography and his support of modern art (p. 4). At 291, the gallery he opened in 1905, he had organized twenty-two exhibitions of photography and forty-seven of European and American art (p. 5). He also published Camera Work, a periodical reflecting many new ideas about art. Before the 1913 Armory Show, the exhibition that introduced modern art to America, he had shown works by Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso (p. 5). He and O'Keeffe fell in love and, although Stieglitz was married and twenty-three years older than Georgia, they moved in together.
During these early years, Stieglitz used O'Keeffe as his artistic subject as he experienced a rush of creative energy and inspiration. He photographed her feverishly. O'Keeffe later commented, "I was photographed with a kind of heat and excitement and in a way wondered what it was all about." (3) Many images are quite erotic (p. 105). One Stieglitz photograph shows the silhouette of O'Keeffe as she stands naked before a lighted window with a diaphanous curtain. Her hand is extended forward, almost as if to part the curtain. (4) Another picture shows O'Keeffe, with her hair disheveled, in a white robe. (5) She looks directly at the camera, holding her hands in front of her partially open robe. Laurie Lisle, O'Keeffe's biographer, claims that from the time that Stieglitz first saw O'Keeffe's drawings and paintings, he immediately associated the artist with her art "as part of the same elementary creative force" (p. 106). He initially photographed O'Keeffe in front of some of her drawings in her first solo show, directly connecting the body of the artist with her created visual text. Stieglitz adds another frame as O'Keeffe and her work become a photographic text (pp. 84, 88). In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited 145 photographs, and forty-five of those images were of Georgia O'Keeffe, many of them semi-nudes (p. 109). From this time until he stopped photographing in 1937, Stieglitz took 500 photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe (p. 105).
People gossiped about the relationship between the young artist and the older, famous photographer. Many found the love story of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe to be enticing, especially as documented in the photographs exhibited by Stieglitz. At the same time that O'Keeffe was beginning to exhibit her work as a new artist, Stieglitz, a well-established artist, was exhibiting his art featuring O'Keeffe as his subject. Thus, as O'Keeffe's art was made public, her body was made public as art. In an article for MSS published in 1922, O'Keeffe wrote, "I have not been in Europe. I prefer to live in a room as bare as possible. I have been much photographed" (qtd. in Lisle, p. 108). These three spare statements are significant in the context of her life and body of work. The first separates her from most of the other (male) artists of her time who had studied abroad. The second suggests a concern with place and space that remained with her throughout her life. Third, at this stage in her life, O'Keeffe is most aware of herself as a visual text, necessarily public and manipulated by another person, however sympathetic. Stieglitz's photographs and the exhibitions of O'Keeffe's paintings made public their sexual relationship, creating an erotic discourse surrounding her works.
Stieglitz's "control" over O'Keeffe (control over her body as the subject of his photographs and control over the "body" of her work) remains a subject of debate, but he clearly played an important role in introducing O'Keeffe's works to the public. In fact, his ideas about female artists were innovative for his time. Barbara Buhler Lynes reports in her work O'Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics that Stieglitz, unlike most of his contemporaries, believed that women could be artists. (6) Stieglitz reportedly stated when he first saw O'Keeffe's drawings, "At last, a woman on paper!" (qtd. in Lisle, p. 69). His recognition of her work as essentially "female," however, proved to be a double-edged sword. Anne Middleton Wagner discusses the critical reception of O'Keeffe's work in Three Artists (Three Women). She claims that critics, mostly male, rushed to describe O'Keeffe's works as "all feeling, all emotion." (7) Stieglitz echoes …
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Publication information: Article title: "Untamable Texts": The Art of Georgia O'Keeffe and Eudory Welty. Contributors: Claxton, Mae Miller - Author. Journal title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 56. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 315+. © 1998 Mississippi State University. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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