Georgia O'Keeffe: An American Icon in Rome

Last time I wrote (nearly 3 weeks ago! for shame!) Rome was in the midst of a delightful extended summer, where short sleeves and sandals were still the uniform. But autumn arrived suddenly and mercilessly, and overcoats and scarves replaced their lighter counterparts from one day to the next.

There is one thing that can make up for the decided chill in the air, and that is the explosion of exhibitions beginning this month. First on my list of new exhibits to see was Georgia O’Keeffe, which opened on the 4th. Fondazione Rome Museo is one of my favorite places to see exhibits, due to the creativity employed not only to make the art come to life, but to frame the life of the artist as well. Their recent trend of presenting icons of American art has been particularly interesting.

New York Street with Moon,  1925

New York Street with Moon, 1925

To isolate and accentuate the different stylistic periods in O’Keeffe’s career, the curators recreated a street of 1920s New York, complete with sidewalk cafés and shop windows, and here works from her early career are displayed. Even more suggestive is the New Mexico area. It was during this period that O’Keeffe came into her own and created some of her best work. A recreation of her studio, complete with her materials, a few of the animal skulls that so inspired her, and a window showing the actual view she would have seen, allows visitors to get a better idea of the landscape that influenced this exceptional artist.

Along with a vast number of her own works, photographs of this remarkable woman, taken by her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, are also a large part of the exhibit. It is interesting to note that when these photographs, many of them nudes, were first exhibited in New York in 1921 it created something of a sensation. O’Keeffe became pegged as a sexual figure, and her abstract works began to be interpreted –and often criticized– as being brazen sexual expression. This one-sided interpretation of her work upset O’Keeffe and from this point onward, her art became increasingly more representative.

Open Clam Shell,  1926

Open Clam Shell, 1926

She is perhaps best known for her magnified paintings of flowers that followed in the 1920s, but even with these undeniably realistic works, critics continued to claim they were Freudian representations of female genitalia. When feminists in the 1970s began praising O’Keeffe as the first artist to create a female iconography, she continued to reject this interpretation, perhaps because it reminded her too much of the pigeonholing and oversimplification of her work by male critics in the 1920s.

Summer Days, 1936

Summer Days, 1936

In mid-life, O'Keeffe settled permanantly in New Mexico, a place she had already come to love during numerous sojourns there. With this new and completely different inspiration, her work took a dramatic--and brilliant--turn. She died at 98, having already been recognized during her lifetime as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century.

In the Patio, no. 1,  1946

In the Patio, no. 1, 1946

One of my favorite writers, and favorite women, George Sand said, “Man will always be more of an artist in his work while woman will always be more of an artist in her life.”* I think this is often true, and learning about the life of an artist, any artist but particularly a female artist, her youth, her loves, her greatest inspirations, provides deeper understanding and appreciation of her work. This exhibit executes that brilliantly. 

*I have no real reference for this quote. One of my best friends in the world, Suzanne Morrison, quoted this to me in a letter when we were in our late teens. I have never checked, but have no doubt to its authenticity.

All images © Georgia O'Keeffe and provided courtesy of Arthemisia Group