Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most significant American painters of the past century, is set to make her posthumous mark in Australia for the first time in an exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne.
Called O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism, the groundbreaking exhibition gives Australians the opportunity to discover more about the modern art movement through the works of the highest-selling female artist in history.
30 of O’Keeffe’s works will be on display alongside paintings by Australian modernist artists, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith.
The highest-selling female artist in history
“Though they developed highly individual styles, the artists are connected by their choice of subject, experimentation with light, colour, and form, and their commitment to presenting alternative ways of seeing the world,” the Heide Museum of Modern Art notes.
“As well as creatively reinventing the still life, each developed a distinct interpretation of place, and in so doing established new means of expressing something of the culture of their respective nations in the twentieth century.”
We talked to Lesley Harding, curator at Heide, to find out more about this inspiring exhibition.
For the non-art historian, can you explain why Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork was so notable?
“Georgia O’Keeffe strove to get to the heart of things in her art, whether that be by magnifying small natural forms or condensing vast landscape scenes. She transformed the still life tradition of painting, abandoning the table and vase arrangement, and instead, filling her compositions from edge to edge with flowers examined at close range.
O’Keeffe’s great kinship with the natural world emanates from her paintings
“Similarly, she synthesised the forms and lines of the wider countryside, focusing instead on capturing the essence and spirit of a place. O’Keeffe’s great kinship with the natural world emanates from her paintings, lending them a sense of timelessness and universality.”
How challenging was pulling all the work together for this MAKING MODERNISM exhibition?
“Once we had determined the artists and broad theme for the exhibition, the most challenging aspect of the preparations involved the final selection of work.
“We wanted to reflect the breadth and depth of each artist’s career, as well as commonalities between them in subject and approach. But we were limited to presenting about 30 works by each.
“There was much to-ing and fro-ing between the five curators [Lesley Harding (Heide), Denise Mimmocchi (AGNSW), Jason Smith (initiating curator), Cody Hartley, and Carolyn Kastner (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)] regarding the shortlist, which was also influenced by the availability of paintings, as we need to borrow them for a twelve-month period while the show tours Australia.”
We know O’Keeffe was heavily influenced by whatever environment she was living in at any given time. What was your favourite period of hers from an artistic perspective?
“After going to New Mexico last year and seeing first hand O’Keeffe’s beloved Southwest landscape, I gained a fresh understanding of her work. It is an incredibly beautiful, rugged and spectacular part of the world, and the extent to which she really understood it and connected with it became immediately apparent.
“She began visiting New Mexico regularly from 1929 before moving there to live in 1943, so it was a long and productive period. However, she really made her mark on American art with her paintings that depict the landscape around her Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch homes.”
What do you think artists of today can learn from the work of these modernist masters?
“All three artists painted subjects they knew intimately and studied closely, but they also made art that was outward looking and reflected their times. I wouldn’t presume to tell any artist what they should learn, but those are some of the things that strike me as elemental to the success of O’Keeffe, Preston, and Cossington Smith’s work.”
What should visitors to the exhibition pay particular attention to while perusing O’Keeffe’s artwork?
“O’Keeffe had the rare ability to look carefully and portray her subjects accurately but edit out all superfluous information. In doing so, she developed the bold, spare and elegant visual language that makes her work instantly recognisable.
“She was also a masterful colourist, knowing just when to be delicate and pale, and when to register bright and clear notes. Her colour is always judicious and harmonious.”