Monday, 26 September 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern

Ok, so I didn't know much about Georgia O'Keeffe other than she painted simple flowers, and that's it. There must be more to her than that if she's got a major exhibition at Tate Modern, I thought, so I popped along. And now I know a lot more and am intrigued. It's also nice to know that she had her first public exhibition in 1916, exactly 100 years ago.

It's an impressive exhibition, big and well curated with a wide range of her work on display. I also liked the way her writings were displayed and I (unusually for me) took the time to read them and they helped shed light on her work. Such as a large book in a glass case that seems to be a diary with Georgia writing about how her friends all wanted to write the Great American Novel but would travel to Europe at the drop of a hat and how she wanted to paint the Great American Painting. She didn't know what that would look like so she added a stripe of red and blue to a painting of a white skull she found in the dessert and commented that people might not like it but they would notice it. I certainly did.

Elsewhere there was some writing on the wall that quoted her on flowers, 'Nobody sees a flower really, it is too small... I'll paint what I see, what the flower is to me, but I'll paint it big...' and that's exactly what she did. In a sense, that's entirely the right thing to do - this is *my* flower, this is how *I* see it - rather than trying to create a perfect reproduction in paint. She took the same approach to painting 'Autumn Leaves' and these paintings shout out loud that it's autumn, gorgeously coloured in the shades of autumn.

A lot of the paintings on display are based on the natural world, on what Georgia saw around her - flowers and leaves, lakes, hills and mountains but, oddly, I don't think of her as a landscape painter. She seems to paint elements of the landscape rather than landscapes themselves, suggesting shapes and colours that make your own mind fill in the rest.

She did, of course, also paint landscapes and these are strange and mysterious, undulating shapes representing hills, the bare landscapes around her in New Mexico where she lived.

I particularly liked 'Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico' that creates a feeling of what it's like to be in that landscape, the creased and wrinkled landscape like an old person lying there with the weight of the world on them. Blue in the distance, red up close, using colour theories to reflect the world around us. That's a landscape I'd like to explore, to tramp around, harsh but beautiful (and probably dusty). I'd take a bottle of water and a hat with me.

There's a lot to see in this exhibition and it's well worth visiting. I enjoyed it so much I bought a book about Georgia in the extensive shop at the end of the exhibition because I want to know more about her. One of the first captions in the exhibition was, 'She decided to be an artist before she was 12 years old'. Anyone who is capable of making that kind of decision at that young age and then delivering on it is worth knowing about. The exhibition is on until the end of October so I hope to visit it again and take another look at these extraordinary paintings.

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