Georgia O’Keefe. Part 1 – The early years and the “Specials”

Georgia Totto O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)
Georgia Totto O’Keefe
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

If I was to ask you who was the most quintessential American artist, I wonder whom you would choose. Would you go for one of the nineteenth century Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole or would you select one of the pioneering and tenacious American female painters who fought hard to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of art, such as Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Perhaps you would decide on one of the great twentieth century painters such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or the folk artist Grandma Moses. Then of course, let us not forget, there is John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and naturally there are the modern greats of American art such as Rofko, Warhol, Pollock and de Kooning. I suppose it is impossible to single out one from the list of artists who paint in so many different genres. However, for me, the painter who symbolises America is Georgia O’Keefe and in my next blogs I will look at her life and feature some of her best-loved paintings.

The O'Keefe farmhouse. outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin
The O’Keefe farmhouse.
outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children. She was the eldest of five girls and had a younger and elder brother. Her father, who was of Irish descent, was Francis Calyxtus O’Keefe, who ran a successful farmstead on the outskirts of the village of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, along with his wife Ida Ten O’Keefe (née Totto), whose maternal grandfather was a Hungarian count. The farm was spread over 1700 acres of land on which they raised cattle, horses and grew crops. When Georgia was five years of age she attended the small one-roomed South Prairie Town Hall school. She progressed well and she and her siblings were constantly being pushed to learn by their mother, who would read stories to her children and play the piano for them. In fact Georgia went on to play both piano and violin.

At the age of eleven Georgia developed an interest in drawing and painting and so her mother arranged private art tuition for her and two of her sisters, Ida and Anita. Georgia revelled in what she learnt, She then attended the Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison as a boarder and in a conversation with a friend and fellow 8th grade pupil she talked about her future dreams:

“…I am going to be an artist!…..I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind…”

The O'Keefe's house in Williamsburg
The O’Keefe’s house in Williamsburg

In 1902 her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia but Georgia, who was fifteen years old, stayed behind for a short time with her aunt. Soon after she re-joined her parents in Peacock Hill, a suburb of Williamsburg and enrolled as a boarder at the private Chatham Episcopal Institute for Girls. She continued to love art and her artistic talent was recognised by all and her fellow students elected her art editor of the school yearbook. In her yearbook was written the telling verse:

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

In 1905, Georgia, now seventeen years of age, graduated from high school and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she honed her skills as an artist and studied composition, anatomy and life drawing. Her anatomical drawing class tutor was John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher, who was best known as an instructor of figure drawing and whose 1907 book, The Human Figure, became a standard art school resource. Georgia O’Keefe excelled at the Academy and all was going well until the summer of the following year when she went home and contracted typhoid and was so ill that she was unable to rejoin the Academy. She had to remain at home to recuperate for more than twelve months.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O'Keefe (1908)
Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O’Keefe (1908)

When she finally got her health back in 1907, she decided to resume her art career but instead of returning to Chicago she enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York which was one of the top art colleges of the time. One of her tutors was William Merritt Chase, who was one of the foremost art teachers of his generation. At this institution aspiring young artists were trained in the European tradition, namely, learning to paint portraits and still-lifes. Once again her artistic talent shone through and the following year she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, in upstate New York, east of the Adirondack Mountains.

In 1908 things changed for Georgia. The Arts Student League of New York wanted to keep to the European tradition of art tuition, copying in the style of the Old Masters. It was a conservative formula and one will never know whether it was this rigid mimetic way of teaching art that disillusioned Georgia, but at the end of her year’s tuition in the autumn of 1908, she decided that she no longer wanted to become a professional artist. Another reason for giving up on her art studies was that her father’s business had collapsed and the family was in need of an extra income and so Georgia gave up her studies and embarked on a career as a commercial artist in Chicago where she spent her time designing adverts and company logos. She did not paint another picture for four years.

Georgia O'Keeffe, aged 30
Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 30

This artistic drought ended in 1912 when she attended a summer course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where one of the classes was run by Alon Bement of the Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. It was Bement who introduced O’Keefe to the radical thinking of his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College. Dow believed in the Modernist approach to art and postulated that rather than just copying nature, art should be created by the various elements of composition such as line, mass and colour. He put his thoughts into words in his 1899 book entitled Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. He summed his thoughts up in the introduction to the second edition of the work which came out in 1912. He wrote:

“…Composition … expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded – the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. … Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. … A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies … Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting. It offers a means of training for the creative artist, the teacher or one who studies art for the sake of culture…”

Georgia O’Keefe who had tired of the mimetic teachings of the academy was enthralled by Dow’s ideas and her love for art was rekindled. In 1912, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she had accepted a position as supervisor of art in the city’s public schools. She took up a post in the August of 1912 as an art teacher at City Public School of Amarillo but she returned to the University of Virginia’s to attend the summer course the following year; this time as an assistant to Bement and in the autumn of 1914 she went back to New York and enrolled for two semesters at Columbia University Teachers’ College where she studied under Dow himself. It was around this time that she discovered the work of Arthur Garfield Dove. Dove, an American modernist painter, who has often been labelled as the first American abstract artist. He placed great emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of colour and line rather than just copying from nature. To Georgia this was not just a revelation but it was the kind of art, which she believed in and it was to influence her art for the rest of her life. For her, it was inspirational, and she happily set off on a new artistic journey. She was excited at the new ideas which flooded her brain and described how she felt:

“…I said to myself ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking……. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…”

You can sense her joy. You can sense her feeling of casting off the shackles of rigid academic teaching. You can sense the elation in the way she saw her future.

Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915
Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915

In September 1915, she accepted a teaching post at Columbia College, South Carolina and it is around this time she begins to experiment with her art, producing a series of amazing cutting-edge charcoal abstract drawings. One such drawing was entitled Drawing XIII which was completed in 1915. In this work we see that the image is sub-divided into three parallel sections. The left hand section has wavy vertical lines which reminds one of a meandering river although some say it is more like a vertical flickering flame reaching upwards. The central part of the work consists of four rounded bulbs which if we continue with our thoughts of nature could then be construed as round top hills. An alternative to this premise is that they are four densely foliated trees. The right hand section comprises of a series of jagged lines which could be a representation of mountains and so in a way this drawing may be a bird’s eye view of a range of mountains and a flowing river with trees separating the two.

Early No. 2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1915)
Early No. 2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1915)

Another of her charcoal works was entitled Early No. 2 which she also completed in 1915. O’Keefe has followed the advice of Arthur Dow and focused on the lines, shapes and tonal values which she, like Dow, believed were the fundamentals of the picture. Her reasoning behind these early drawings being in black and white and devoid of colour was her belief that colour would distract viewers from what she had hoped to create. It was all about curves and geometrical shapes and the clever balance between areas of the work which were light and shaded.

No. 12 Special by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
No. 12 Special by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe was proud of her first foray into this new world of art and she would often refer to these early drawings as “Specials” indicating how much they meant to her. She mailed some of these drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had been a Columbia classmate of hers. Pollitzer, who was now a photographer in May 1916, took them to show the internationally reknowned photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who had his gallery, 291, at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Stieglitz was impressed with what he saw and described them as:

“…the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered ‘291’ in a long while…”

Special No. 15 by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Special No. 15 by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Unbeknown to O’Keefe, Stieglitz exhibited her drawings at his gallery alongside works by other artists. When O’Keefe found out about this, she was not best pleased but later forgave him. This initial collaboration between artist and gallery owner was to be a turning point in Georgia O’Keefe’s artistic life.

…………….to be continued.

 

Grüngasse in Murmau by Wassily Kandinsky

Grüngasse in Murnau by Kandinsky (1909)

In my last blog I was following the life story of Wassily Kandinsky and had reached the juncture in his life, 1901, when he had opened up his own art school, Phalanxschule, in Munich.  The previous winter, along with help from some of his like-minded artist friends, he had launched the exhibiting association, known as the Phalanx, and they had held their first exhibition in August 1901.

First Phalanx Exhibition in 1901

Kandinsky designed the Art Nouveau styled poster advertising its opening.  In all the Phalanx held twelve exhibitions during its ten years in existence and it was in the seventh one in 1903 that works by Claude Monet were exhibited.  The tenth exhibition included a number of works by post-Impressionists such as Paul Signac, Felix Vallotton and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jugend magazine cover

In the final years of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the in-vogue artistic style in southern Germany was Jugendstil or as we may better know it, Art Nouveau.  The German word, Jugendstil means “youth style” and derives from the German cultural weekly publication Jugend.  The style-setting iconic magazine, founded by George Hirth, promoted the Art Nouveau style.  This up-and-coming art form was both artistically graceful and stylistically revolutionary. The Jugendstil artists and designers had their base around Munich, and while their work stylistically was likened to that of the French Art Nouveau of the fin de siècle era, the Jugendstil art depicted many Teutonic and mythological themes.  Probably due to this, many of Kandinsky’s works at that time consisted of figure studies, scenes of knights on horseback, scenes from romantic fairytales and some fanciful reminiscences that he clung to of his beloved Moscow.  The second Phalanx exhibition contained many Jugendstil works.

Kandinsky and his wife Anya Chimiakin separated by mutual consent in 1904 and he and his former Phalanxschule art student Gabriele Münter, who had become his lover, set off on a number of trips around Europe.  They travelled to the Netherlands and Tunisia in 1904.  The following year was spent in Italy and for a year between 1906 and 1907 the pair settled down Sèvres, a town in the outer suburbs of Paris.  During this stay he exhibited works at the avant-garde Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants.   At this time in Paris the art work of Gauguin, the Nabis, who were a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists, Matisse and other Fauves were being exhibited.  Fauvism was the first of the major avant-garde movements in European twentieth century art, and was characterised by paintings that used powerfully vivid, non-naturalistic and exuberant colours.   This exposure to fauvism resulted in Kandinsky starting to paint fauvist-inspired landscapes in which the manner he used colour quickly departed from the naturalistic and descriptive.  His use of colour was for reasons of expression, and in a lot of cases, non-naturalistic, motivations.  Colour to Kandinsky now became ever more important and as this importance grew in his mind, the less he painted post-Impressionist type landscapes. Kandinsky’s colours became more brilliant and vibrant.  Often his paintings around this time were large areas of solid bright colours set in sharp contrasts of light and dark and warm and cold.

Although travelling around Europe, Kandinsky always found time to return to Russia and exhibited some of his works at Moscow and St Petersburg exhibitions.   In 1908 Kandinsky and Münter returned to Munich.   From there, they often took painting trips to southern Germany, during which they visited the small town of Murnau, which nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.  Both Kandinsky and Münter fell in love with the sprawling landscape of this area and found great inspiration from the scenic views with its kaleidoscope of colours with the high Bavarian Alps acting as an awe-inspiring background.  The following year, the couple bought a house in the town and their two artist friends from Munich, Jawlensky and Werefkin often stayed with Kandinsky and Münter and together the group produced a number of wonderful landscape paintings and works depicting the town of Murnau itself.   One of these works was one done by Kandinsky in 1909 and is today’s featured painting.  It was an oil on cardboard painting entitled Grüngasse in Murmau which depicted one of the local streets in the town where he was living.

It was during the time the four artists lived under the same roof that conversation often turned to art and new forms of art.  The most important result of these artistic discussions was that gradually Kandinsky’s became more interested in abstraction in art,  in which representational forms, whether people or places, would increasingly melt away and be replaced by colours and basic shapes.  In this Abstract art, the painting did not depict a person, place or a thing in the natural world, even in an extremely distorted or exaggerated way.   So the subject of the painting was based on what you saw, such as colours, shapes, and simple brushstrokes.  Kandinsky believed that different colours provoked different emotions. He believed that the colour red was lively and confident; green was peaceful with inner strength; blue was deep and supernatural; yellow could be warm, exciting, and disturbing and white seemed silent but full of possibilities. Kandinsky had now also decided to compartmentalise his work into three categories.  The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation.  They would be direct impressions of nature.  The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey  spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type.  The last category he termed Compositions.  These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies.  These were to be his most complicated works.  Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  Kandinsky said of the connection between colour and music and of the connection between an artist and a musician:

“…Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul…”

In the spring of 1909, the four artist friends from the house in Murnau, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin along with Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, all of who had studied art in Munich, formed an exhibiting society known as The Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM)    (New Artists’ Association of Munich).  Their exhibitions were to be an alternative to established exhibitions. The aims of this newly formed group were laid out in the preamble to the founding circular of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München.  It stated aims were:


“…We believe that the artist is continuously collecting both impressions from the outer world of nature and experiences from an inner world. And that he is searching for artistic forms to express the interaction between these types of impressions, forms which must be free of all irrelevant detail in order to express only what is necessary in a powerful way – in short, the pursuit of an artistic synthesis. This seems to us to be a solution that currently unites increasing numbers of artists. In founding this association, we hope to create a physical form for intellectual relationships between artists and to make it possible to speak to the public with a single voice…”

The NKVM mounted their annual group exhibitions at Galerie Thannhauser in Munich. The first NKVM show at the Thannhauser Gallery was held in December 1909 and a total of 128 works of art were put on display.  The second exhibition followed in September 2010 and this was opened up to French and Russian avant-garde artists, such as Georges Braque, Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Alexander Mogilevsky.

Suddenly with these exhibitions Munich became the centre of avant-garde art.  These exhibitions of avant-garde and abstract art were not universally popular with the Munich art critics of the time.  They were very forthright in their condemnation of one of Kandinsky’s entries, Composition II, unanimously agreeing that the painting was simply the work of a madman or somebody high on drugs.

The third exhibition of the NKVM was set for December 2011 and artists were asked to submit their painting to the exhibition jury so they could be considered as suitable or not for inclusion in their third exhibition.  By 1911 Kandinsky’s work was becoming more abstract in nature and some of the groups fellow artists were starting to criticise his style.   One of his main submissions, Composition V, was rejected by the jury as being too big and not in accordance with their Society rules on size but it was thought that it was also considered to be too abstract.  This decision pleased some of the artists in the group and annoyed others, such as his close friends, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin and the German painters Franz Marc and August Mack, and a schism in the NKVM occurred.  Kandinsky immediately resigned and along with his supporters formed a new exhibition group to rival the NKVM.  The group was called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  The origin of the name of this new group was once thought to have come from Kandinsky’s own painting which he completed in 1903 entitled Der Blaue Reiter but in Annette Vezin’s 1992 book, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, she wrote that Kandinsky wrote 20 year later that the name of the society came from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and his own love of riders, combined with the fact that he and Marc both loved the colour blue.  To further annoy the NKVM group, Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group decided to hold their first exhibition at the same time as the third exhibition of the NKVM and in a room next to theirs!

I will pause my story on the life of Kandinsky and in my next blog delve into his later life and the works he produced.