(Credits: Far Out / The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)
Stood in front of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris painting, you’ll find yourself pondering that age-old question: is that a flower or a vagina? That question dogged O’Keefe her entire art career, reducing a varied collection of work down to a motif that she often denied was sexual. That said, there was something beautiful about her forensic look at flowers, often honing her focus into their inner folds, that was so evocative it could plausibly be seen as something more.
The assumed sexual tone of her work cannot be divorced from her position as a female artist. While male artists are often treated to varied interpretations of their work, O’Keeffe is one of hundreds who have had theirs dictated to them. O’Keeffe was something of a recluse, which complicated her rebuttal somewhat, but in one often-quoted statement, she once discussed how tedious other people’s projections were.
“I made you take time to look at what I saw,” she said. “And when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
Flowers themselves are a loaded subject. In Victorian times, they had their own dictionary, with different flowers meaning different things. They have their own codes, languages and associations, but to O’Keeffe, they were just things to look at. On the face of it, her paintings were conceptual and Modernist, but really, there was no great aim behind them beyond capturing their beauty.
“You put out your hand to touch the flower, lean forward to smell it, maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking, or give it to someone to please them,” she explained. “Still, in a way, nobody sees a flower. Really – it is so small – we haven’t time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
In the mid-1920s, she set about making people really see flowers, their inner workings, almost forcing viewers to take in every creased petal. Dated readings of her work invent a sexual element that was plainly unintentional. What O’Keeffe wanted to do was stop people in their tracks, not because Jack in the Pulpit IV looked like a vagina, but because they were finally taking time to stop and smell the roses.
“I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it,” she reflected. “I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers”.