On Her Own Terms: Georgia O’Keeffe

Review of Georgia by Dawn Tripp

Though the title of Dawn Tripp’s historical novel is Georgia, for modern art master, Georgia O’Keefe, the relationship between O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz stands at the center of this story. Their legendary relationship and marriage– she an artist and he her art promoter – spanned two decades and created a number of myths about female artists and O’Keeffe herself that she works to challenge and dismantle in this first person narrative told from the perspective of the elusive O’Keeffe.

GeorgiaThe myth about female artists having to make a choice between art-making and baby-making comes up early in the book. Not long after commencing a relationship with Stieglitz (a married man and twenty years her senior), Georgia expresses her desire to have a child with him. He vaguely agrees with “Soon,” but when she pushes him, he puts her off citing her art – “When you’re painting, Georgia, when you’re really in your art, that’s where you are. You disappear from the world, from me. And I understand that. I want that for you, because I know that in order to make the art you need to make, you need to give yourself completely to it…A child would dismantle that.” O’Keeffe isn’t the first twentieth century artist to swallow this narrative that a woman can create either children or art but cannot do both, a myth that doesn’t apply to men. Picasso had four children, Monet had two children of his own and added six step children with his second wife, Vermeer had eleven children, and that’s without thinking too deeply on the matter. In the twentieth century, child rearing was, of course, primarily a women’s affair, but the question persists today.

It’s ironic that while Stieglitz insists O’Keeffe single mindedly focus on her art without the interference of children underfoot, the couple spend every summer on Lake George in Stieglitz’s family house where his siblings and their families descend creating a full and chaotic house.  Also friends visit O’Keeffe and Stieglitz regularly at the lake house bringing even more children to frustrate and haunt O’Keeffe. There are two intense scenes depicted in the novel involving children and water, and because of their placement, they serve to highlight O’Keefe’s crushed hopes and complicated feelings on the children she would not have, as water is often a symbol for fertility.

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Alfred Stieglitz photograph of O’Keeffe with sketchpad and watercolors, 1918

Midway through the book, however, Georgia sets these yearnings aside and this coincides with her artistic successes.  She claims a shack on the Lake George property to immerse herself completely into her painting, and then she begins making solo trips to Maine and the New Mexico to paint in seclusion.  Georgia realizes during her first trip to New Mexico that “perhaps Stieglitz is not my life, but a detour from it.” Her trips away from Stieglitz continue until their time apart is lengthier than their time together, and it is during this part of O’Keeffe’s story that she takes complete charge of her image.

There is another myth addressed in the novel about Georgia O’Keeffe and her art – that her large, expressive paintings of flowers are to be interpreted as abstractions of the female form. The association between her flowers and feminine sexuality is linked to Stieglitz’s erotic photographs of O’Keeffe. Over the course of their relationship, he mounted and displayed 350 images of O’Keeffe, many of them nudes. While O’Keeffe in life and in novel felt dissociated from the images – like they were of another person and not herself — the public and her critics could not separate the arousing images of O’Keeffe when seen in conjunctions with her art.

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Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1938

During an interview dramatized in the novel O’Keefe wonders, “Should I say that I am a landscape artist who has become famous for someone else portraits?  That as my art has hit the world it’s been instantaneously recast by those who see what they want, not what is there? The words are on the tip of my tongue.” O’Keeffe eventual finds her voice later and spends the rest of her life working to undo the connection between Stieglitz’s photographs and his idea of who she was and represented with her own – rebranding her art in her own terms and asking her audience to interpret her work for themselves, insisting that her artistic intentions were very different than what her earlier critics decided. O’Keefe’s famous flowers only make up a small amount of her artistic outpouring, about ten percent. The majority of her works are of landscapes, bones, shells, leaves and rocks.

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Ram’s Head with Hollyhock by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1935

The idea about image rebranding is an important theme in Georgia by Dawn Tripp. Even this reviewer came into the reading of the novel with preconceived and mythological notions of who the Mother of Modern Art was supposed to be, and over the course of this engaging and often poetic novel, the imperfect and more endearing human emerged. This Georgia was more complicated and sometimes a paradox as she navigated her passion, marriage, art, image, reality, disappointments, desires and flaws.  Late in the book, Georgia, referring to the mountain of intimate letters she and Stieglitz exchanged during the relationship, states, “the letters were never who we were. They were who we wanted to be.”  But this sentiment is really about Georgia O’Keeffe as a whole and how she had to fight for a new public image for her life and art.  I recommend this portrait of an artist and her artistic  journey.

About Kristen LePine
KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.

Thoughtful comments appreciated

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