Georgia O’Keeffe, a pioneer of the modern art movement and one of the most famous American female artists, captured through her abstract depictions of large flowers, animal skulls and the landscape of the Southwest, the power, the emotional pull and perception of abstraction in art. O’Keeffe was unique; she followed no artistic school or thought. Her vision of form and design all came from within her own spirit.
Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz
You cannot talk about Georgia O’Keeffe without discussing Alfred Stieglitz. Their lives were intertwined for more than twenty years. Stieglitz was a bigger than life character: mischievous, loyal, and generous, yet he could be domineering, sexist, brooding and demanding. When they met, he was already legend in the photography and art world; responsible for making photography an acceptable art form as well as introducing the American art world to modernist painters like Picasso and Cezanne, and mentoring photographers like Paul Strand and Edward Steichen.
The 2009 made for TV film, Georgia O’Keeffe was not the first film about the two artists. In 1991, PBS’s American Playhouse presented A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stiglitz with Christopher Plummer as Stiglitz and Jane Alexander as O’Keeffe (it is a fascinating work that I will write about at a later date). The film was the brainchild of Alexander, a passionate admirer of O’Keeffe. The new film, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Christofer (The Shadow Box) and directed by Bob Balaban began as an HBO production. Four years later, Lifetime, looking to improve their quality, had taken over the production after HBO decided to pass on it.
The film focuses on the couple’s complex relationship, more than the creative aspects, between the two artists. That said, there is plenty of O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz work on display. The filmmakers were given access to film some scenes at O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch just outside of Abiquiú, New Mexico. Many other scenes were shot in and around the Santa Fe area. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gave the filmmakers permission to use many of the artist’s paintings and drawing in the film.
They first meet at Stieglitz’s gallery 291. O’Keeffe (Joan Allen) wanders into the gallery seeing a few of her charcoal drawings hanging on the walls (earlier O’Keeffe mailed them to her good friend, Anita Pollizter who lived in New York and gave them to Stieglitz). Stieglitz (Jeremy Irons) comes out from his small office to finds her there. She knows who he is, everybody in the art world knows Alfred Stieglitz, but he doesn’t know her. Georgia quickly demands he take the works down. The photographer, tells her she has a lot of nerve. Doesn’t she realize these are amazing works of art? Georgia replies she knows that, after all, she made them, but she did not give him the permission to hang them. He tells her drawings are hanging next to the works of other greats in the exhibit (Picasso and Cezanne among others). It’s a lively introduction to each other, the kind that would dominate their relationship.
O’Keeffe is a woman of remarkable frankness, a modern woman before her time. Stieglitz is an opinionated, obstinate, old-fashion man. He is twenty-four years her senior, already in his fifties, and married! They shouldn’t click, but they do. There’s an attraction to each other. He soon invites her to stay in New York. His niece has an apartment she can use to live in and paint. They soon become lovers. She makes no apologies for the adulterous affair. He eventually, leaves his wife and moves in with her.
Georgia re-sparks his interest in taking photographs, and he begins a series of pictures of her, fearlessly detailed photos of her face, hands, breasts and more. When he unknowingly to her exhibits his works of her at his gallery, she is fuming with anger. No one will take her art seriously after this! He explains there is no such thing as bad publicity. The art world will scoop up her work.
Relationships change and one born of teacher/mentor can be dangerous once the mentor’s fame and confidence grow. O’Keeffe knew her work was good, yet she realized without Alfred’s entrepreneurship, she may never have achieved her potential. A control freak and philanderer, Stieglitz has an affair with Dorothy Norman, young attractive, she is also the largest benefactor of his gallery. Shortly after, Georgia, along with good friend Becky Strand, wife of photographer Paul Strand, flee to Taos and the artist community of Mabel Dodge Stern (Tyne Daly). The change of scenery provides vast opportunities to explore new subjects that suit both her vision and spirit.
Georgia eventually began spending more and more time in New Mexico. Alfred didn’t like it; he wanted her back in New York with him as a wife should be. Over the years Georgia would periodically return to New York, but she always returned to her ranch in New Mexico. In 1946, Alfred suffered a severe stroke. When she arrived back in New York, Dorothy Norman was at his bedside. Norman quickly left. Georgia stayed with Alfred until he passed away.
Unlike the 1991 film, Georgia O’Keeffe focuses more on the complicated relationship, between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and not as much on her art and what made her so unique. People who know little about O’Keeffe’s art will not learn much about what made her so extraordinary. The same can be said about Stieglitz, if you do not know who Stieglitz is and his importance, not just to Georgia, but to the evolution of photography as an art form, well the viewer will still be clueless after watching this film. For me, that the film’s central weakness. That said, it’s an entertaining film, a primer into the world of these two artists. Hopefully, making you thirst for more. Visually, it is beautiful to look at; the New Mexico locations as photographed by cinematographer Paul Elliot make you want to go there.