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Monday, November 12, 2012

Young Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe in Williamsburg: A Re-creation of the
Artist's First Public Exhibition in the South (catalogue cover).

O'Keeffe photographed by Stieglitz,
It's amazing that when we think of certain famous artists, we have this image of them usually based upon the last ten or twenty years of their lives--that time when they were at the height of their fame. This is a peculiarity mostly of famous painters, unlike actors and especially actresses, for instance, who tend to have their most memorable periods early in life, sometimes even as children, such as in the case of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. But when we think of painters, we picture Picasso from late middle-age, Norman Rockwell even older than that, and Georgia O'Keeffe in her 80s and 90s. In fact, Georgia O'Keeffe is and interesting case in point. Few remember her from her New York years with Alfred Stieglitz. She's remembered for the Taos years, a craggy, dry, humourless old lady as relentless in her pursuit of artistic perfection as she was fascinating to observe. If she's little remembered for the New York years before her husband's death in 1946, the pre-Stieglitz years which took her to New York would seem like Medieval history. Try as I might, I can't picture her as a feisty young art teacher in West Texas or a pre-WW I college student at Columbia. The thought that Georgia O'Keeffe might ever have been a 20's "flapper" seems utterly inconceivable.

O'Keeffe as seen by Ansel Adams
about the time of her 1938
Williamsburg Show.

In 1938, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia awarded Miss O'Keeffe (Mrs. Stieglitz by then) her first honorary degree. It also was the first and only Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree ever awarded by the college in its 300-year history. In conjunction with this, she was represented by her first solo show in the South. The show was never reviewed, is mentioned only briefly in her biographies, contained only eight paintings, and in fact, lasted just six days. In retrospect, it seems to have been a mere punctuation mark in her long, illustrious career. Several years later, the College's Muscarelle Museum of Art opened an exhibit striving to re-create this "lost show" with the same eight paintings, even the same wall colours selected by O’Keeffe and her promoter-husband more than sixty years before as representative of her work during the previous ten years.

Hollyhock Pink with the Pedernal, New Mexico,
1937, Georgia O'Keeffe, was one of the nine
paintings exhibited in the Williamsburg show.

Setting up the show was no easy task. Just coming up with a list of paintings from the original show was difficult. To begin with, they had only a clipping of Miss O'Keeffe in her cap and gown from the New York Times. Only after a great deal of in-depth research into letters and other memorabilia from the period were museum officials able to pull together a list of four flower paintings, a view of New York City, two Southwest landscapes, and one of her trademark "bone" paintings. Many of the current owners of these works were unaware of their significance in this light. A ninth painting was also added to the show, a work entitled White Flower (1932, top, used for catalogue cover) by O'Keeffe, which had been donated by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to the museum back in 1938 to commemorate the awarding of the honorary degree.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe,
ca. 1940
In 1938, Georgia O'Keeffe was no stranger to Williamsburg or William and Mary. Her family had moved there from Wisconsin in 1902. Her brothers had attended college there. Her parents lived there until 1909. Coming back was like a homecoming for her. In the course of their research in preparing the show, the curators found an old 6 1/2-minute reel of home movie film shot by her family of the occasion. The film was transferred to videotape and shown for the first time publicly as part of the exhibit. It shows a smiling, waving, almost girlish O’Keeffe receiving her degree--a picture totally out of sync with our present-day image of this stone-faced American art icon. The show, "Georgia O'Keeffe in Williamsburg: A Re-creation of the Artist's First Public Exhibition in the South" ran through May, 2001, whereupon it moved to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

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