Georgia O'Keeffe, A Life, Roxana Robinson

Plus de 6 mois que je tourne autour de ce billet, ne sachant trop comment m’y prendre pour éviter de vous imposer un ersatz de fiche Wiki...
Et pourtant, je meure d’envie depuis tout ce temps de vous faire (re)découvrir une personnalité hors du commun, au destin passionnant, artiste majeure de la peinture américaine du XXe siècle : Georgia O’Keeffe.

Je vais donc me contenter de rappeler ici les principaux sujets qui me font aimer cette femme à la beauté singulière et magnétique, et partager avec vous quelques passages de la biographie riche et complète que lui a consacrée Roxana Robinson, sobrement intitulée Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life.

C’est passionnant et ça se dévore comme un roman d’amour et d’aventure.
Malheureusement, cette biographie n’a pas été traduite en français. Mais si les grands traits de la personnalité de Georgia O’Keeffe vous parlent, il existe une pléthore d’ouvrage qui lui sont consacrés, ainsi que des documentaires (dont beaucoup disponibles sur le Tube).

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Femme moderne avant l’heure, Georgia O’Keeffe a pris son destin en main sans s’en laisser compter, se moquant bien des convenances de l’époque, multipliant même les provocations : ne pas se soucier de son apparence et préférer les tenues sobres et pratiques aux fanfreluches réservées aux femmes d’alors ; devenir artiste dans un milieu exclusivement masculin ou presque ; choisir, pour s’exprimer, l’abstraction, courant d’avant-garde au début du XXe siècle ; tomber éperdument amoureuse d’un homme marié de 24 ans son aîné, Alfred Stieglitz, qu’elle n’épousera que 6 ans plus tard une fois son divorce prononcé.
Cette relation passionnelle et fusionnelle, fondée principalement sur leur abnégation réciproque pour l’art, a donné naissance à une collection de plus de 350 photos de Georgia prises par Stieglitz (dont certaines nues, qu’il a exposées alors même qu’il n’était pas encore divorcé) et à un échange de cinq mille lettres sur les trente années que dura leur relation.
Plus la personnalité et les besoins de Stieglitz se sont fait pesants, moins Georgia, farouche indépendante au caractère trempé, pouvait s’exprimer. Si leur relation est devenue de plus en plus tumultueuse, jusqu’au jour où Georgia quitte New York pour s’installer au Nouveau Mexique, ces deux-là sont toujours restés en contact, se témoignant jusqu’à la mort de Stieglitz une admiration, un respect et un amour réciproques.
Au Nouveau Mexique, où elle est tombée amoureuse de la nature environnante et des paysages à perte de vue, Georgia revit et peint tous les jours, partant aussi souvent randonner, seule ou avec des amis de passage.
Dans les années 70, alors qu’elle a déjà plus de 80 ans, une dégénérescence maculaire lui brouille la vision. Elle décide alors de faire d'un jeune potier son assistant, ce qui lui permettra de dessiner jusqu’en 1984. Deux ans plus tard, elle meurt aveugle, à 98 ans.

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Un fort esprit d'indépendance

During these years, Georgia was growing up to be independent and free-spirited. “It may have come from not being the favorite child and not minding that—it left me very free. My older brother was the favorite child, and I can remember comparing myself to him and feeling I could do better.” She gave her inclinations free rein [...]
A few years later, when her sisters wore different-colored sashes over their white dresses on Sundays, Georgia preferred no sash at all to being part of a continuum. And though it was the conscientious Auntie who took them all to church behind her horse, it was not Auntie who drove the buggy. “Georgia drove,” remembers Catherine, “or someone like that.” Someone energetic, authoritative, and full of conviction. It was no wonder that Georgia’s concept of God was female.
(p. 28*) 

Georgia’s decision to leave her parents, move to a large midwestern city, and continue her education started a pattern that did make her life different from those of the other girls at Chatham. She began to establish herself as an independent agent, ignoring the power structures and the conventions that traditionally governed young women’s lives. (p. 52*)  

Georgia O'Keeffe - In the Patio VIII, 1950

The struggle to free herself, to not “cater to someone,” was an intrinsic part of becoming an artist; there was, too, the added complication of being a woman. (pp. 126-127*)

It was not true that Georgia disliked “all families.” What she disliked was the idea of forced intimacy, and institutionalized relationships.  (p. 216*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills, New Mexico, 1935

Alfred’s need was for people; Georgia’s was for solitude. The difference was fundamental and absolute, and neither he nor she would alter. For the next several years she would endure sociability until she could do so no longer, and then she would flee. (p. 261*)

Un art lié aux émotions et à la nature

New York in the early years of the century was in the midst of a period of exhilarating expansion. [...] The art world was experiencing a parallel expansion and revitalization. American art had always suffered from a schizophrenic pull between indigenous talent, subject, and tradition, and European style and technique. (p. 62*)

By this time it was evening, and during the long trek home Georgia paused to look at the marshland in the twilight. [...] Georgia was suddenly struck by the realization that her feelings governed the way she saw the scene. It was a moment of transformation: the entire visual world, she realized, was dependent on the emotional world. The power of a painting depended not only upon technical skills but also upon emotive powers.
This was a revelation to the young artist. Line, perspective, composition, and technique would supply only half of a painting’s real power; the rest would derive from spiritual content.
(p. 77*) 

Georgia O’Keeffe - Lake George (Formerly Reflection Seascape), 1922

“Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.” This philosophy meant that all physical choices were aesthetic ones. “I liked to convey to them the idea that art is important in everyday life. I wanted them to learn the principle: that when you buy a pair of shoes or place a window in the front of a house or address a letter or comb your hair, consider it carefully, so that it looks well.” (p. 96*)

“I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift,” she said later. “I don’t think I have a great gift. It isn’t just talent. You have to have something else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.” [...]
O’Keeffe’s priorities were absolutely ordained: the experience was always worth the risk. “I’m frightened all the time,” she said years later. “Scared to death. But I’ve never let it stop me. Never!”
(p. 168*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Oriental Poppies, 1928

[...] by now O’Keeffe was beyond intimidation or advice, even from so eminent a personage as Alfred Stieglitz. In a spirit of peaceful coexistence, she painted what she needed to paint and let people say about it what they needed to say. “If I stop to think of what others—authorities—would say … I’d not be able to do anything,” she wrote. (p. 223*)

In spite of Georgia’s insistence on being first, [...] one aspect of [her] calmness was her consistent generosity to other painters. With very few exceptions, she was seldom critical of other artists: she felt no threat from them. If she did not like an artist’s work, it was outside her sensibility, and she had nothing to say of it. If she did like work, she was positive and supportive. (p. 257*)

For a catalogue essay, O’Keeffe sent Sweeney a collection of clippings about herself, though she made a casual disclaimer: “Don’t take those clippings very seriously—I’ve never denied anything they wrote so it isn’t always true—I always thought it didn’t matter much—maybe I even really enjoyed usually feeling quite different about myself—than people often seemed to see me.”
(p. 449*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - My Front Yard, Summer painting, 1941

O’Keeffe, fierce and self-protective, defended her work against what she saw as an invasion of privacy and a devaluation of her efforts. Her growing blindness was still something she tried not to acknowledge, and she tried to keep it from the world at large. Admission that she could not apply the paint on her own canvases was humiliating, and she angrily tried to dismiss the entire episode. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s business,” she said loftily, and went on to announce, with a brutal lack of tact, “Mr. Poling was the equivalent of a palette knife.” (p. 531*)

Un rapport viscéral à ses œuvres

She felt a need to dispose of the things she had done, and the physical act of dispersal freed her: “I’m awfully glad those drawings are gone—I like to feel that I am rid of them—It seems to give me more breathing space.” She was, however, ambivalent about the process: though she wanted response, the work was so personal that its exposure was painful. (p. 115*)
Tony Vaccaro - Georgia O'Keeffe at her outdoor easel, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960

Georgia knew that the show was hers; the realization startled and shocked her. The drawings were intimate visions of hers, highly private, and they had been put on the wall for all the world to stare at. Having her work seen by strangers was excruciating; when Alon Bement had shown some drawings of hers at Teachers College, she wrote Anita: “Anita, those things meant so much when I tried to say them—I object to having [the work] dragged around as a curiosity—it just hurts—I can hardly tell you.” Then, too, she felt cheated by the process. (p. 141*)

Georgia O’Keeffe - Blue #2, 1916

O’Keeffe herself felt little connection to the exhibition. “I feel so far removed from my work when I go to see it … I can imagine denying I had ever done it,” she said in an interview, and was unconvinced of its success: “I do not particularly enjoy thinking of [my show]—There are paintings of so many things that may be unpaintable.”
It is rather disturbing to take the best of the work you have done from the people you have loved and hang it that way and go away and leave it—Makes me feel strangely raw and torn.
(p. 397*)

Both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz had always been loath to part with O’Keeffe paintings. In 1926, Herbert Seligmann wrote: “The pictures … were like children to himself and O’Keeffe. He had had a terrible time getting O’Keeffe accustomed to the idea that she must let them go out into the world … When O’Keeffe’s first picture was taken away it had taken her ten days to get over it.” Consequently, a large quantity of O’Keeffe’s paintings, including some of the best, were still unsold in the fifties. (pp. 493-494*)

Une artiste féminine...

O’Keeffe’s abstraction seemed particularly arcane because her imagery was female, drawn from a consciousness that was perfectly accessible to women but not always so to men. And though the female nature of the work was recognized at once, it was not perceived as the underlying element of the alienness that people found. O’Keeffe’s imagery was, as Simone de Beauvoir later demonstrated, “Other”; it was apart from the male mainstream. This fact of alienness to the male tradition was responsible for a strand of hostility that would remain part of the complicated skein of response to her work. (pp. 178-179*)

Georgia O’Keeffe - Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923

Georgia saw that her attitude set her apart from conventional women, and she aligned herself with the other gender. (p. 186*)

It was Stieglitz who showed O’Keeffe that she possessed a remarkable beauty.
[...] At thirty, however, Georgia received the knowledge too late for narcissism. In fact, any vanity in Georgia attached to her supple, tapered hands and her thick black hair, both objects of praise. In them she saw beauty, and she let her face look as it might. But her self-image was founded on more fundamental strengths: character, moral integrity, determination, and talent. And it was these strengths that Alfred Stieglitz, master photographer, captured, as well as the more transitory quality of her haunting physical beauty.
(p. 214*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Black Iris III, 1926

O’Keeffe’s attitude toward clothes had always been individualistic, though this became more pronounced with age. Ever since reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915, O’Keeffe had chosen her clothes for practicality and freedom of movement, as well as for her private aesthetic pleasure. High heels and cosmetics were anathema. Simple and severe, her clothes were often monochromatic, black or white, and idiosyncratic as to line. From childhood she had known how to sew, as did most young women of modest means, and she made her own clothes for years.
[...] In spite of her deliberate avoidance of conventional feminine beauty [...], O’Keeffe had a mesmeric appeal of her own. She had become a beauty, with dark, deep-set, ruminative eyes, high cheekbones, and a generous, sensitive mouth. Beyond bone structure, however, was her arresting presence. She possessed the sense of physical certainty, the interior conviction traditionally assigned to men. Though her beauty was feminine, her manner—neither coy nor artificial—had about it a directness and self-containment that was expected of men, not women. This strength and conviction became part of the aura of potency, of strangeness, that had begun to take shape around O’Keeffe.
(p. 419*) féministe

Feminism was something O’Keeffe had supported steadily throughout her life.
[...] O’Keeffe had always been deeply conscious of the subtle and far-reaching consequences of growing up female in an androcentric society. [...] She saw individual independence as the single most crucial issue for women. Just as she had asked Dorothy Norman why she didn’t join the Women’s Party and drop all the other nonsense, she felt women should struggle for their own liberation before crusading for other social issues. She had placed its significance above the workers’ movement in the thirties, and in the seventies she found sexism comparable, in its subtlety and pervasiveness, to racism. [...]
For the feminists of the sixties and seventies, O’Keeffe’s life of independence served as an exemplar of feminist behavior. The problems she faced were common to all women in the arts, though her solutions were pioneering and courageous. Her character seemed to embody those virtues—independence, strength, and dedication—that the movement extolled. [...]
Nonetheless, it was precisely the qualities the feminists admired that resulted in O’Keeffe’s disavowing any allegiance with the feminist movement in later years, just as she disavowed any dependence on other artists or aesthetic movements. O’Keeffe had struggled alone for her independence; it had both cost and gained her a great deal. The battles she had fought had been personal and solitary, and she refused to dilute her achievement in the reservoir of group activity—which the feminists of the seventies promoted.
(pp. 503-504*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Untitled (Abstraction Green Line and Red Circle), 1979

Une amoureuse passionnelle

I seem to like many people enough to make them miserable—No one enough to make them happy. (p. 186*)

A painter could never produce the clarity and perfection of line, perspective, and detail that any amateur photographer could achieve after one lesson with a camera. While painters raged about the upstart technology, photographers, whose ideas of art were bound up in painting, turned out prints that imitated the paintings then in vogue, accomplished by means of careful posing, blurry focus, and manipulated negatives.
[...] Photography, argued Stieglitz, should be judged by purely aesthetic standards: line, tonality, technique, and, most important, composition: masses, lights and darks, the use of detail to form a whole that was aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally compelling. Besides the technical aspects, Stieglitz required expressive power: the image should create an emotional response in the viewer. This line of reasoning, addressed originally to photography, carried Stieglitz, by logical extension, beyond realism to abstraction. That in turn resulted in his expansion of appreciation and his support of abstraction in painting and sculpture, which he began to promote at an early date.
(p. 69*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Wave, 1922

When Stieglitz took the first photographs of Georgia, she was pleased and flattered [...]
The more intimate series on which Stieglitz now embarked was a different proposition. With his long hours and long exposures and his critical, demanding eye, Stieglitz took command of Georgia’s time, her body, and her privacy. Exigent, authoritative, he used her limbs and her energies in the cause of his art. [..] Moreover, in this project Stieglitz’s art superseded O’Keeffe’s: the very nature of the collaboration required that she be passive. If he was working, she could not.
Georgia’s willingness to collaborate, however, is unsurprising: the series constitutes and commemorates an act of love. Then, too, she had a profound respect for his art, in which she was, she recognized, an important collaborator.
(p. 213*)

Georgia was crazy about him.
The difference in their ages meant nothing to her. She dwelt purely in the present, and there Alfred was extraordinarily energetic and appealing. She showed her affection openly and physically, unsettling his family by patting Alfred’s cheek and asking ingenuously, “Isn’t he cute?” [...]
Georgia’s capacity to appreciate without judging allowed her to love the best of Alfred. [...] “The relationship was really very good, because it was built on something more than just emotional needs. Each of us was really interested in what the other was doing.” The bond between them was one of passion and tenderness, and their art blossomed.
(pp. 219-220*)

Georgia O'Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz

If she was becoming increasingly aware of the threat posed by Alfred’s presence in her life, she was beginning to perceive her own strengths in response to that threat. (p. 298*)

Georgia was finding the design of her life increasingly claustrophobic. It was Alfred who decreed the daily pattern, just as he had with Emmy, just as his father had with his mother. It was Alfred whose needs—social, emotional, and physical—took precedence [...] “[He] loved having people around the house all the time,” Georgia said later, “and I’d have to take three weeks off to do a painting. And that’s no way to be a painter.”
[...] There were only two locations he would tolerate: New York in the winter and Lake George in the summer [...] O’Keeffe began to recognize that neither place, for her, was nourishing, vital, or, finally, tolerable.
At the start of their relationship, Stieglitz assumed that O’Keeffe’s needs and interests were identical to his, and this was nearly true in those early days. Georgia found the endless discussions of art and philosophy interesting, and she saw Alfred’s family as an exotic foreign tribe. Now Georgia was through talking about art, and she was no longer amused by the Stieglitzes. It was the time in her life for work.
[...] This did not diminish Georgia’s affection; she loved him without qualification, but also without idealization.“
(pp. 312-314*)

Her instinct was not to alter other people’s behavior but to modify her own, and she had developed a characteristic response to pain.
[...] Georgia’s need to leave was necessary for survival, but Alfred saw it as a direct threat to himself.
(pp. 315-316*)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Abstraction White Rose, 1927

Georgia saw that it was her responsibility to resist those destructive forces from both herself and Alfred. She had not opposed Alfred’s control of her life, because of its kindly patriarchal guise: his rules seemed like a token of his affection or, more difficult to resist, an indication of his need. Either way, she now saw, he had prevented her from leading her own life. [...]
Georgia recognized that her attitude must be reciprocal and that in asking Stieglitz to let her live her own life, she must let Stieglitz live his [...], jealousy, however, is not so neatly set aside, nor is the alteration of a ten-year pattern of deference so easily achieved.
(p. 337*)

* sur ma liseuse
Roxana Robinson - Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life (University Press of New England, 1989)


  1. J'apprécie beaucoup ses tableaux, merci! Une totale découverte

    1. Une artiste majeure de la peinture américaine du XXe siècle que je ne connaissais pourtant pas il y a encore quelques années. C'est en m'intéressant de près au travail de son époux, Stieglitz, que j'ai fait connaissance avec O'Keeffe, au travers des quelques centaines de photos qu'il a prises d'elle et d'où émane un réel magnétisme et où perce son regard. Je ne me suis intéressé à sa vie, et à son art, qu'ensuite.

  2. Je suis sous le coup de foudre. Merci pour ce billet passionnant.

    1. C'est un vrai "personnage" à la personnalité et au destin hors du commun. Je m'étonne qu'on ne la cite pas plus souvent aux côtés des grandes figures féminines de l'histoire du monde.

  3. J'avoue que je ne connaissais pas cette artiste. Beau billet !

    1. Il semble qu'elle ne jouisse pas d'une aussi large renommée par chez nous qu'une autre artiste féminine comme Niki de Saint-Phalle ou Frida Kahlo...

  4. Je suis d'accord avec toi, il est toujours difficile de faire un billet sur une biographie. tu t'en es sorti à merveille en tout cas !

  5. Oh, tu as profité de mon absence pour écrire ce billet ;). Je rejoins Jérôme, juste bien, ce qu'il faut. Figure-toi que c'est grâce à toi que j'ai mis un nom et un visage à cette artiste. Très joli choix d'images, j'aime particulièrement le lac, les poppies toujours, et cette photo de 1960 au Nouveau Mexique est splendide !

    1. Je te promets que je n'ai rien calculé ;) .
      En regardant une nouvelle fois les œuvres que j'ai choisies, je m'aperçois que j'ai privilégié ses tableaux les plus abstraits qui ne sont pas représentatifs de l'ensemble de son oeuvre... Mais ce sont ceux qui me parlent le plus.


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