Skulls, flowers and desert landscapes

Skulls, flowers and desert landscapes

The art of Georgia O’Keeffe

Fifteen years ago I made a road trip with my parents and two sisters across the southwestern part of the US. A memorable, exciting journey through different states, landscapes, cities, atmospheres, and cultures. Although I cannot recall every detail, every encounter, as well as the other, I do remember our visit to Santa Fe, one of the major cities in New Mexico. Brought up in an international oriented environment where culture had an importance place, it may not have been strange that my parents wished to see the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a museum dedicated to the ‘mother of American modernism’, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Perhaps too young to acknowledge any cultural value of this artist to the art world, none of her works made an indelible impression at that time. A certain astonishment, curiosity, and exceptionality in the colorful works of O’Keeffe aroused my interest in later years and the significance she had in the development of American Modernism.

Best known for her New Mexico landscapes, animal skulls and magnified flowers, O’Keeffe’s most striking works are made during her many travels to the northern region of the Land of Enchantment, with Taos, Santa Fe and the surroundings as her inexhaustible source. She went on regular pack trips exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region and collected rocks and bones from the desert ground. The distinctive architectural and landscape forms of the area became the subjects in her work, a stark contrast with the crowded industrial cityscape of machines and skyscrapers of New York.

The Southwest stood for cleansing, spirituality, vastness, nature, indigenous cultural symbols and traditions, and embodied a New World of possibilities. O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue (1931) is an icon of Southwestern Modernism. Featuring a bull’s skull mounted on a black vertical cross-like shape, the painting is completed with a background in the colors of the US flag, a charged symbol of cultural nationalism. ‘As I painted along on my cow’s skull on blue I thought to myself, “I’ll make it an American painting. They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides – Red, White, and Blue – but they will notice it”.’ Intentionally paradoxical, the artist’s symbol of national identity suggested patriotism, religion, death, and life.

Observing and experiencing the works of O’Keeffe is worth a journey along a spectrum of colors, shapes, and symbols, drenched in the southwestern culture of New Mexico. An inspirational trip.

The exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern is now on view until 30 October.