By Lydia Aldridge
As I bin the wilting Aldi flowers that suffered on a few days too long on my windowsill, I am drawn to think about the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and her iconic images of flowers. Flowers to me, vaginas to others. But what I am concerned with is what these paintings meant to O’Keeffe, as no-one seemed to pose this question to the artist herself.
Soft, subtly voluptuous and rich in colour, O’Keeffe’s masterpieces are certainly reminiscent of the female form, one could not be scolded for aligning with the popular view of relating her paintings to the image of female genitalia. This perspective exploded into the feminist canon in the 1970’s, with the surge of 2nd wave feminism, O’Keeffe’s pieces became intertwined with sexualised imagery.The myth of an erotic and sensual message behind these paintings was first suggested by O’Keeffe’s husband, Stieglitz, much to her dissatisfaction. I argue that is perhaps hypocritical to continue forcing the idea that her work is about something deeper than flowers; though valorised by feminists for decades, it is a view originally given by a male voice that effectively silenced O’Keeffe’s. To me, it is a tragedy that popular commentary on her work became more important than her own opinion and desires. It seems to perpetuate the notion that female creatives must create art for a ‘purpose’ rather than just for the sheer pleasure and passion in the act itself.
O’Keeffe’s passion for flowers, stemming from her midwestern roots, was not understood by Stieglitz’s contemporaries. The atmosphere at the time was focused on innovation and modernisation, and critics often thought of O’Keeffe’s painting as ‘too feminine’ and representative of ‘traditional womanhood’. At this point, O’Keeffe made the decision to shift the style of her work, creating her iconic close-up and enlarged study of flowers.
‘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’ – Georgia O’Keeffe
It was a stylistic shift, not a shift in meaning, her paintings were not – and have never been – a metaphor for female sexuality or genitalia. Of course, I am not arguing against the
subjectivity of art, I appreciate and applaud that we can take what we like from pieces of art, it affects us all in different ways and that is indeed the appeal. However, I find it to be ironic, and rather hypocritical, to erase the intentions of an iconic, trailblazing female artist to suit personal rhetoric. Certainly, I too see images of female anatomy in her pieces, but I understand that this is due to a history of flowers being metaphors for fertility and female sexuality; also, that flowers are primarily made up of sex organs, both male and female. I believe it’s time to re-think these ideas about her work, these cliched interpretations were perpetuated by male art critics at the time and are now sorely outdated.
O’Keeffe’s refusal of this popular interpretation was not a dismissal of female empowerment, she was a member of the pro-suffrage National Women’s Party and thought ‘it will be nice when women have equal opportunities and status with men’. I believe O’Keeffe was just fed up with being told what her art meant. A rose is a rose is a rose; a flower is a vagina is a flower. Whatever you take from O’Keeffe’s paintings, it’s important to acknowledge the intention of the artist herself; surprisingly enough a woman can paint a flower and it really just be a flower. After all, Van Gogh’s ‘Vase with Pink Roses’ are not seen as vaginas in a vase.