The Most Expensive Female Artist Ever Comes To Tate Modern

Georgia O'Keeffe, Tate Modern ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 17 months ago

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The Most Expensive Female Artist Ever Comes To Tate Modern Georgia O'Keeffe, Tate Modern 4
We love this deer skull. The washed out colour palette gives it a surreal look

Georgia O'Keeffe lived quite the life. Surrounded by prominent male artists she outshone those around her and ensured her contribution to the Modernist movement was greater. Her confidence can be summed up in her quote:

Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.

Based on this quote, it's easy to see why she was a feminist icon. She was never comfortable with the assumption made by many feminists that her flower paintings represented female genitalia (although looking at the image below it's easy to see where the comparisons came from).

The record-breaking Jimson Weed is on display here. While on the right is a flower painting that bears a resemblance to female genitalia. © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London (left image) & Copyright museum of fine arts, Houston (right).

O'Keeffe is most known for her flower paintings and they're quite rightly a prominent feature in this illuminating exhibition. The Jimson Weed is the work that caught all the headlines when it sold for $44.4m — a record sale for any artwork by any female artist. Though it's an accomplished work it's got nothing on the poppies which is hung adjacently and has an intensity with its deep reds and blacks, making it much more alluring. As O'Keeffe so beautifully said about her flowers:

Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven't time and to see takes time ... So I said to myself — I'll paint what I see — what the flower is to me, and I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.

But it's wrong to classify O'Keeffe solely as a flower painter; she took on cityscapes and landscapes too. Her landscapes are markedly different, adopting a washed-out palette (she spent a lot of time in the sun-drenched southern USA).

The standard landscapes of rolling hills are unspectacular but when she decided to focus on the sun bleached bones of animals, the washed-out style comes to the fore. We're used to vanitas paintings where skulls are shown in the dark, so in the sun these paintings look surreal and delicate.

We weren't so impressed with O'Keeffe's daytime landscapes. But her speciality is an intensity of colour and that comes out in this view as the sun sets.

Her event-filled life and legacy aren't separable from her work, and the choice by the Tate Modern to combine the two in this exhibition makes for a strong showing, stronger than if either topic had been tackled individually.

The show isn't all works by O'Keeffe — photography by her husband Alfred Stieglitz, and friends Paul Strand and Ansel Adams are also included. This helps to illustrate the development of O'Keeffe's painting style: she borrowed from all of these fellow artists to improve and experiment. While not all of her works are visually striking, this is a very well thought-out exhibition, with a strong narrative about how she evolved as a painter.

Georgia O'Keeffe is at Tate Modern until 30 October. Tickets are £17.20 for adults, concessions available. While there, be sure to visit the new extension to Tate Modern and there's also an exhibition by Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar.

Last Updated 10 June 2017