Female Bodies 2: Georgia O'Keeffe & the Mystery of Sense

Georgia O'Keeffe, Gray, Blue and Black--Rose Circle, 1929

How is it possible that Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the pre-eminent American artists of the 20th century, not to mention one of the pre-eminent women artists of the era worldwide never had a singular exhibition France? The gaping gap in French aesthetic intelligence--parallel perhaps to the obvious recent gap in anti-terror intelligence--has at last been corrected, but not in Paris, the self-perceived global capital of fine arts.

The current show, which opened earlier this month in the former industrial city, Grenoble, in the lower Alps is, fortunately, a stunning retrospective both of O'Keeffe's paintings and of many of the photographs of her life companion Alfred Stieglitz as well as the landscapes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Imogen Cunningham.

It was easy in the era of Jackson Pollock's abstract dribbles and Picasso's dismembered breasts and thighs to dismiss O'Keeffe as a painter of pretty flowers. That was especially the view of her work expressed by the almost universally male doyens of French contemporary art in the 1960s and 70s.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Petunias, 1925

But for Guy Tosatto, director of the Grenoble Museum, it is O'Keeffe's "singularity" that has long attracted him. She is, he told me, "unclassifiable."

"Georgia O'Keeffe poses several important questions," he continued. "She works on certain images associated with women, for example the flower that is often a cliché for women artists, and then she completely turns it upside down. She turns that image of a flower deeply erotic, suggestive, sensual--something that becomes nearly provocative. At nearly every level her works seems to address sexuality, yet at the same time she rejects, she refuses, the usual clichés like the thighs of Fragonard."

Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom 1925 (c) Imogen Cunningham Trust

Not that the referential thighs, crevices are absent, but they take an original form from nature.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Purple Hills, 1935, San Diego Museum of Art

O'Keeffe succeeded in escaping the classic images of female sexuality--from Fragonard's libertine nudes in the 18th century to the periodically "scandalous images" presented in a half dozen other shows this fall across France.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Red, Yellow and Black Streak, 1924

For Tosatto and the show's curator Sophie Bernard, O'Keeffe stepped out of those paradigms to reveal still greater sensuality in the flowers, rocks and cliffs, even the sun bleached bones she found in the desert of the America southwest where she spent the greater part of her life. All the while she studied the intense photography of her close circle of friends there, including Adams, Paul Strand and of course Stieglitz.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Rock with white background, 1963-71

"Woman, lover, model, artiste--Georgia O'Keeffe condenses all these roles that women have held in the history of art as well as in modern art and that all too often cast them into the painful margins," writes critic Julia Kristeva. "If she excelled in each of these fields separately, she has combined them with an elegant intensity, perhaps without precedent and with successors. Unique, her vital, esthetic complexity reveals nevertheless a simplicity that defies interpretation while still remaining mysterious."

Edward Weston, Shell, 1927

Throughout her images, especially when set against her many photographer friends' works, both intensely direct and expressively abstract--just as she was in her life.

Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe Painting, 1933

All images (c) ADAGP 2015, provider of images except those made by Frank Browning. All paintings are by Georgia O'Keeffe; copyrighted photographs are as noted.