A snapshot between life and death. Georgia O’Keeffe’s art

Eva CASINI %A %B %e%q, %Y 0
A snapshot between life and death. Georgia O’Keeffe’s art

If there is something I will remember about this summer it’s the perception that it has never begun. Unceasing rains, the autumn chill, worries for my academic exams that seem not to have an end and boredom marked these two last months in a mood not so different from the previous ones. But, as it happens in every uninspiring situation, the risk of a habit is always around the corner: a week of rain is enough to make us forget entire summers spent in the heat, being wild-eyed, thirsty and in desperate search of a little shadow.

To avoid this risk, during these last days at home before leaving for my vacation, I collected keepsakes from past summers: postcards, leaflets, magnets, toys and books I accumulated in atmospheres so different from this year’s cloudy skies. I knew that every object would bring me back, if not to specific occasions, at least to pleasing sensations.

In the midst of the most varied rubbish there was also a book I bought two years ago in San Francisco. It was a bright and cold day, tickled by the wind that urged people to museums, shops and the warmth of a hot cup of coffee.

I took refuge in a tiny bookstore with my father and my brothers. While we were waiting for the arrival of some family friends, it was a relief to leave behind that wind which didn’t give a break, in change of subtle breaths of readers leafing through the pages of their next purchases.

I was immediately drawn by an enormous book, with yellowed pages, on which still stood the unmistakable, bright colors of its images. At a glance, I had recognised that it was a catalog of works by Georgia O’Keeffe, a painter who had always intrigued me because of her simplicity, a feature almost against the XX century, even more incomprehensible to me, to whom still lifes and flat colors convey in most cases an idea of ​​inner emptiness.

Yet, right during that travel in the USA, in which I was seeing live much more O’Keeffe’s works than I wanted, I began to be fascinated by her haunting, enormous flowers, her dark New York streets, her canyons immobilized in the sun and her animal skulls adorned by flowers; they were incomprehensible images to me, and, for this reason, they needed an explanation or at least a long observation.


I decided to purchase the book, so that someday I would understand what to think of that odd kind of art.

It was a conclusion I’d get to only two years later, right in these days I picked up the book and, finally, I read it with attention: Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are now snapshots between life and death to me, moments before flowers turn into slides of a microscope; bones, clouds and shells into a single, blinding, white halo; sunburned rocks into a postcard from an alien landscape.

What is alive and charming in these images it’s the artist’s gaze, forcing us to see what she saw, to tell us apart from common objects such as a flower or a shell and still continue to watch, until our own identity vanishes in the act of watching, until we feel we are the flower or the shell.

«A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower — lean forward to smell it — maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking — or give it to someone to please them. Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time … ’So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.


Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t. Then when I paint a red hill, because a red hill has no particular association for you like the flower has, you say it is too bad that I don’t always paint flowers. A flower touches almost everyone’s heart. A red hill doesn’t touch everyone’s heart as it touches mine and I suppose there is no reason why it should. The red hill is a piece of badlands where even the grass is gone. Badlands roll away outside of my door-hill after hill-red hills of apparently the same sort of earth that you mix with oil to make paint. All the earth colours of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through ochres – orange and red and purple earth – even the soft earth greens.You have no associations with those hills – our waste land – I think our most beautiful country.  You must not have seen it, so you want me always to paint flowers…».


In Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings nothing is only what it seems to be. The artist is a god that looks and loves everything the same way, the eye that finds matches between the small and the immensity: slopes are “just the arms of two red hills reaching out to the sky and holding it”; holes in a pelvis bone become windows to point to the blue, so that it “seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world”.


The adoption of original and unexpected points of view is a double edged sword: on one hand it gives the artist a certain critical acclaim, on the other makes her art a perfect combination of uniqueness and no communicability.

The language of painting overlaps to the one of life, mind and soul, so that it becomes a habit to think oneself lonely among many different solitudes, without the possibility to describe one’s incompleteness in an unambiguous way.

«We all have a world of things inside us: everyone their world of things! So how can we understand each other, Sir, if in the words I say I put the meaning and the value of things as they are inside of me, while the one who listens inevitably takes on them with the meaning and the value they have for them, of the world like they have it inside them? We believe we understand each other; we never understand!» (Luigi Pirandello, Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore)

For Georgia O’Keeffe, this awareness results into two contrasting attitudes.

Still a student, naive and in search of acceptance, she finds herself involved in a struggle between teachers’ approval and the search of her own identity. She realises with a certain satisfaction some drawings with a primitive and marked touch, immediately snubbed by teachers with more refined tastes; she manages to improve and becomes one of the most brilliant students in her classes, yet she admires the freedom and the creative impetuousness in a classmate who is judged less gifted than her.

After completing her studies, she realizes that the only available resource it’s herself. It’s not because school didn’t succeed in enriching her, on the contrary, names, dates and techniques crowd her head, depriving her of the time and the ability to observe without intermediaries.

« There are people who have made me see shapes — and others I thought of a great deal, even people I have loved, who make me see nothing. I have painted portraits that to me are almost photographic. I remember hesitating to show the paintings, they looked so real to me. But they have passed into the world as abstractions – no one seeing what they are.».

The road to self-knowledge proceeds through attempts and successive approximations. Georgia O’Keeffe follows a reverse path than that of many other artists. She feels that creating takes a clean sweep, starting from nothingness, from what has no direct links with reality. It’s the only way through which the eye can get rid of all the filters and stereotypes that have burdened it for years and go back to being helpless in face of the images that strike it.

The “first”-born work is Blue lines, two thin watercolor scratches on a small white paper.


For the audience, this isn’t one of her best works for sure, but it’s a turning point for Georgia: in those very light blue watercolor lines there is the artist’s signature, her eyes able to dominate the variety of real and perceive it a merely as a form.

« It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colours put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.».

When she finally becomes a well-known, free from conventions artist, Georgia understands that, as stubbornly unique, her art is still projected to the other.

She is perfectly conscious that the only possible communication in art is to declare oneself resigned to its no communicability. She doesn’t hope to be appreciated right for what she would intend to convey with her painting. This didn’t happen even to more celebrated artists than her:

«Men didn’t think much of what I was doing. They were all discussing Cézanne, with long involved remarks about the ‘plastic quality’ of his form and colour. I was an outsider. My colour and form were not acceptable. It had nothing to do with Cézanne or anything else. I didn’t understand what they were talking about why one colour was better than another. I never did understand what they meant by “plastic”. Years later when I finally got to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire in the south of France, I remember sitting there thinking, ‘How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything he did with that mountain?’ All those entire words piled on top of that poor little mountain seemed too much.».

Yet, even Georgia is not insensitive to the pride given by recognition. Knowing that someone stops to look at her paintings, admire them or despise them, being enraptured or indifferent, to her it’s a proof that everybody’s loneliness is not a conviction. Although it may seem frivolous, the pride coming from seeing her works hanging on the walls of her future husband Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery  of is huge: it is a tacit assent to the Georgia’s hope, who in her dark snapshots between life and death always encloses the promise of a dialogue; a warning not to simply look at reality for what it is; an invitation to give up oneself, the unquestionable clarity of one’s points of view for a moment, to love the complexity even of what is most obvious in the world.

And the hope that two solitudes can come in touch for a moment finds its satisfaction in ordinary miracles of everyday life, in being able to give up one’s eyes, to understand through the eyes of the other.

«I’m afraid to fly-but after the plane takes off I enjoy what I see from the air and forget the hazards. I once spent three and half months flying around the world. I was surprised that there were so many desert areas with large riverbeds running through them. I made ​​many drawings about one and a half inches square of the rivers seen from the air. At home I made larger charcoal drawings from the little pencil drawings. The color used for the paintings had little to do with what I had seen-the color grew as I painted.

Edith Halpert was still my dealer at that time and wondered what the paintings were about. She thought maybe trees. I thought that as good as anything for her to think -as for me, they were shapes. But one day I saw a man looking around at my Halpert showing. I heard him remark, “They must be of rivers seen from the air.” I was pleased that someone had seen what I saw and I remembered it my way.».