Sunday, February 12, 2012

Georgia O'Keeffe - at the Munich Kunsthalle

In all my reading about photography, Geogia O'Keeffe's name is the most prominent of non-photographers.  Her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz and his subsequent influence on her career tie back to the origins of photography as an art form rather than a form of documentary or record.  One of Stieglitz's ambitions was to chronicle the life of a single person from birth to death, paralleling his desire to document the city of New York, O'Keefee became that person, although she outlived him by a good 40 years.  As a result I have seen very many pictures of O'Keeffe and yet had never seen any work of her own.

Yesterday I made it my goal to change that situation and spent an hour or more viewing the latest exhibit at the Kunsthalle, a rotating gallery that hosts major exhibitions.

Georgia O'Keeffe at the Kunsthalle

This retrospective look at her work encompassed here entire creative output, with paintings, drawing and photographs created over a period of 70 years.  Her longevity as an artist and the presentation in a single exhibit enabled me to see how a single artist developed over a lifetime, her work evolving in subject and technique, and yet always unmistakably O'Keeffe.  Her focus on colour versus precise depiction of form was powerful both in her abstract and more representational work.  Of particular interest to me as a photographer was the pervasive influence of photography within her work, clearly the influence of her husband, but also within the circle she moved.  Her paintings frequently cropped objects filling the canvas with a flower, the strong colours extending to the very frame edge, in much the same manner as a photographer might fill their frame with a subject.

Following my recent experiments with Tulips I found these paintings to have great beauty and harmony, the composition fitting well with my personal aesthetic.  

The exhibit contained not only her own work, but that of her husband and other photographic friends of O'Keeffe.  It was particularly thrilling to see original prints from Stieglitz's New York work alongside her paintings of the city.  One particular wall was of note, on it were hung photographs of O'Keefe taken by a variety of photographers, but most notably by Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.  What I found rather strange about these photographs was that the Adams portrait was far more sympathetic of her, it really brought out her spirit and joy in life.  This contrasted dramatically with the photos made by Stieglitz.  These seemed rather stiff, more an exercise on composition versus a husband portraying the love of his life, almost as if Stieglitz clinged to his formalism at all times, never letting down his guard and allowing any element of sentimentality to enter into his work.

I learned a lot from this exhibit, seeing a life times work by a single artist helped me to understand the process of developing a style and the changes that occur due to external influence.  Seeing the interaction of photography and fine art painting was thought provoking and suggests a need for me to continue to look at non-photographic art.

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