The current show of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, Modern Nature, at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum reveals the the gardener observing nature.
The works in the exhibition are all from a period of her life when she painted at the vacation resort town of Lake George, New York, before moving to the Southwest where she spent most of her career. O’Keeffe was married to Alfred Stieglitz during this time, the famous photographer and gallerist who almost single handedly popularized impressionist art in America.
We see her studies of the Eastern landscapes with the trees, leaves, and most remarkably the garden flowers from the summer garden of the Stieglitz family, seen with the appreciation of a gardener that seeks to celebrate plants.
“I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then.” Georgia O’Keeffe 1921
In a remarkable essay by Erin B. Coe from the book that accompanies the exhibit, Modern Nature, O’Keeffe’s early years are presented as a gardener where she expressed “an intimacy with the soil”. In the book we learn of the influence of Donald Davidson (husband to Elizabeth Stieglitz) the Columbia trained horticulturist who was heavily influenced by Luther Burbank.
Burbank was the most important plant breeder of his time with more than 800 new varieties of plants making gardening extraordinarily popular. He was considered a “plant wizard” and sought to create new flower colors the way a painter would go about “choosing colors for his palette”.
When planning the summer gardens, O’Keeffe and Davidson would study Burbank’s seed catalogues, groundbreaking with its color pictures by unknown photographers, where he urged his readers to use “good taste in the selection and combination of colors.”
An early Burbank crinkly Shirley Poppy from volume 9 ”His Methods and Discoveries and their Practical Application” 1914, now published by Luther Burbank Online.
Just as gardeners today scour seed catalogs looking for new and remarkable plants, one can imagine O’Keeffe’s excitement finding these new flowers and then bringing them into the “Shanty” where she painted at Lake George.
O’Keeffe’s Red Poppy
“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.” Georgia O’Keeffe
It’s hard to imagine any flower artist today not being influenced by O’Keeffe. She truly looked deep into flowers, and found her own world. It makes great sense now, knowing that she was a gardener, exploring new worlds as all gardeners do almost every time we lose ourselves in a flower.
And for this flower photographer, pursuing new worlds with digital manipulations, her inspiration is boundless and her words insightful as I begin to remove distracting details from photos:
“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” O’Keeffe 1922
More on the Red Amaryllis photo and the process behind it on my personal blog Mental Seeds. Thank you Ms. O’Keeffe.
The O’Keeffe show at the DeYoung Museum goes until May 11.