Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day at the Museums: O'Keeffe and Kahlo

This morning, in the fog and hoar frost, our friends Jeff and Mary drove us up to Minneapolis to see exhibitions of work by two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Our first stop was the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for the exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction. O'Keeffe is best known for her paintings of flowers and animal skulls, but this exhibition focused specifically on her use of abstract, or nearly abstract, curvilinear shapes. For me, the highlight was a series of canvases from her Pelvis Series, painting in the 1940s, in which the blue sky is seen through the openings in bleached white pelvic bones. It's impossible to gain a full appreciation of O'Keeffe's paintings from photographic reproductions (which are popular and widely available). In the Pelvis Series paintings, brush strokes create subtle light effects and textures that give the paintings an almost holographic quality. The colors and textures change subtly depending on the angle from which the painting is viewed. The last painting in the series gave me a feeling of vertigo. The painting represents the blue sky seen through the hole in a pelvic bone, but my eyes insisted as seeing it also as a blue egg on a white background. My eyes shifted dizzily between these two perspectives.

After spending some quality time with O'Keeffe, and gaining a much deeper appreciation of her work through the MIA's fine exhibition, we wandered around looking at some old favorites in the collection. For me, this meant visiting an old crush, Camille Corot's "Springtime of Life" (1871), wistfully painted when the artist was seventy-five.

After lunch at D'Amico's in the MIA, we headed over to the Walker Art Center for the large Frida Kahlo exhibition. After the cool abstractions of O'Keeffe, Kahlo's paintings seemed especially intense and painful. O'Keefe's white pelvic bones framing the blue desert sky are intense, but they draw the viewer into depths far outside of himself (or herself), into the sky, nature, pure color and abstract form. But Frida Kahlo was Frida Kahlo's favorite subject. The majority of the paintings in the exhibition were self portraits. Her intense self-examination is very different from O'Keeffe's expansive outward gaze. Pelvises appear in Kahlo's art, too, but they are part of a personal iconography of pain. Because her pelvis was too narrow, she was unable to bear children successfully, and in one shocking and powerful painting actually portrays herself having a miscarriage. She never seemed able to escape herself and her own pain—both her physical pain and the pain of Diego Rivera's infidelity. For Kahlo, a painting of a pelvis was a personal icon of pain and death; for O'Keeffe it was bleached of all personal significance and became purely abstract form.

We finished off our visit to the Walker with a quick tour of some of the other galleries, in one of which a young man caught our attention and did what Clara described as "a silly dance." He then explained that the silly dance was actually a work of art on loan from a museum in Berlin, and that the artist himself had shown him how to do the silly dance.

The O'Keeffe exhibition at the MIA runs through January 6; the Kahlo exhibition runs at the Walker through January 20, after which it moves to Philadelphia (February 20-May 18) and San Francisco (June 14-September 28).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favourite O'Keeffe painting is The Lawrence Tree, although I've never seen the 'real thing'. Unfortunately her 'flower' paintings get reproduced far too often. I did see a few of her abstract works at Milwaukee Art Museum, and thought they were graceful in colour and style.

I have never been to New Mexico, and don't suppose I will get the opportunity to now, but I have been reflecting on the fact that when I read D. H. Lawrence as a schoolgirl none of my teachers ever mentioned that he travelled to America. He was always portrayed as a typical North countryman, and it wasn't until later that I found out about his link to O'Keeffe.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .