I was fortunate on Wednesday to get to see the amazing Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern. Whilst knowing of her, I have never really looked hard at O’Keeffe’s work and it was a great opportunity to do so. I took nearly two hours and went through the exhibition twice: it covers the period from the First World War to the late 1960s. A lot of the work immediately made an impact – some of the work done in the 1920s and 1930s from Lake George (Autumn Leaves, From the Lake No3 and No1, Autumn Trees – The Maple) and the stunning visualisation of New Mexico semi-desert (Black Mesa Landscape/Out Back at Marie’s 1930, The Mountain 1931, My Back Yard 1937) are as arresting as anything you will see in modern art, simply for the bold use of colour in the service of form. The beautiful Nature forms, Gaspe (1932) is a testimony to the fact you can paint landscape without ever being absolutely sure where the sky, land and sea actually begin. I wish I had had these in mind before teaching my art club on watercolour last term…
Almost missed, because of its position near the entrance to another gallery, was her lovely The Eggplant (1923), as wonderful a painting of an aubergine as you will ever see. Aubergines have such a solid presence as a fruit. The darkness of the colour, a deepening of the shade of the flower, and the way that light is reflected from it, all makes for a rich sense of promise – as though a whole meal is there waiting for you to explore it. As a lover of baba ganoush and Imam Bayildi, two great aubergine dishes, I am prejudiced in their favour anyway. We have been growing three plants over the summer, and there is another large plant in the school greenhouse.
O’Keeffe paints it against a folded sheet – and the eye draws you from the sheet down toward the base of the picture where the fruit sits. This print, from a reproduction website, does not do it justice, and we were not allowed to photograph in the exhibition. But still, worth spending a long time looking at – except for the fact that if you did, you would be blocking the entrance to the next gallery.
I also loved the determination to exploit each medium to its full extent. As a young artist, O’Keeffe wrote that “I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted in black and white”. Later on, in 1949, the wonderful Ram’s Horns I is a study in charcoal again, a testimony to the fact that the simple things, mastered completely, become serviceable throughout a creative life.
Finally, I admire artists, like Astrup (Western Norway), O’Keeffe (New Mexico), Kathe Kollwitz (Berlin) and Frank Auerbach (north London) who make the place they call home the centre of their artistic work. As I have often argued here, the need for a fully local engagement is impossible to avoid if an artist does not want to appear rootless.
Anyway, this post was originally supposed to be about aubergines, so here are some more pictures!