Tuesday, January 04, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #15 - Cow's Skull with Calico Roses

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, Georgia O'Keefe, 1931, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in.), The Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O'Keefe is one of the most recognized artists of the twentieth century. It's rare to find such an accomplished woman in the art world - it has historically been a career for men. Even today, women are not on an equal footing with men in the business of art - check out the Guerilla Girls for more information about that and to see about their activisim! O'Keefe was a strong woman who followed her passion and became an icon in the art world, especially for aspiring women artists.

O'Keefe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Art Students League in New York and was exposed to a new art trend: imitative realism - a movement that was meant to artistically reproduce nature as the artist saw it. When O'Keefe took a summer class for art teachers, she was introduced to Arthur Wesley Dow who had a passion for non-western art, especially Japanese art. He believed that color, line, light and dark tones should be balanced. O'Keefe connected with these ideas and began to experiment with them. Her initial work was brought to the attention of photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Without her knowledge, he put her work in an exhibition at his gallery in New York, 291. Her work was a hit and Stieglitz became a huge supporter of hers and began regularly exhibited her work. He was able to get her to move to New York and paint full time. They married, lived and worked together until 1946 when Stieglitz died.

O'Keefe began with paintings of New York, flowers and plants. Her flower paintings were so close up, you lost the overall image of the flower and just focused on the details. It's said that O'Keefe responded about these paintings once by saying she wanted the viewer to stop and really look at the flower. Her love for nature took her out west to New Mexico and one visit was all it took to hook her for life. Take a look at this 10 minute video and listen to her tell her story about her love of New Mexico. She began painting desert scenes, including bones and skeletons of dead animals. The pure line, light and shade she used in her other paintings transferred perfectly to these new subjects. She kept going back to the Southwest all through the 1930s until Stieglitz died then she settled in Arizona and lived out her life into her 90s. Her work became so important, she was given a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the first woman to receive such an honor.

This work, Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, uses many shades of white to create the skull and roses over an unidentified white background. The value creates an image that looks three dimensional (remember, it's painted on a two dimensional canvas). It is symmetrically balanced with the focal point centered in the picture plane. The painting is a still life, but the composition is strong and bold. O'Keefe loved painting nature, and this skull was beautiful to her, not morbid. The juxtaposition of the soft flowers with the brittle bone make for an interesting combination. They could be speaking of both life and death, but ultimately speak of the beauty of nature. Her approach to her paintings is pure and direct - she had an eye for capturing nature and detail without making it fussy and busy. Her paintings are elegant, spare and compelling. Her work is beautiful and haunting and helped establish a modern aesthetic in the world of art.

This post seems woefully incomplete. Stieglitz and O'Keefe had a powerful love story and an incredible artistic connection. He was one of the twentieth centuries most reknowned photographers and Georgia was often his photographic muse. I have always enjoyed reading biographies of artists throughout my life, and reading their biographies were some of my favorites. Explore their lives for yourself - you won't regret the time invested.

1 comment:

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