A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (1991) Ed Sherin

marriage

In 1991, American Playhouse, a PBS produced series presented A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The production starred Jane Alexander as O’Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Stieglitz. There are few, if any, artistic couples who loom as significant in the history of culture and art as Stieglitz and O’Keeffe. Alfred Stieglitz did not consider himself just a photographer, but an artist and through his galleries and his highbrow magazine, Camera Work he almost single-handedly made photography a recognized art form. Additionally, he was a pioneer in introducing the Modern Art movement to America.

marriage1The film was the brainchild of Jane Alexander, a passionate admirer of Georgia O’Keeffe. She wanted to do a feature film but was unable to raise the financial backing needed. According to a New York Times article[1] Alexander’s husband, director Ed Sherin whose credits include Valdez is Coming and TV shows Homicide in the Streets and Law & Order, suggested she try the PBS route. It would be a lower cost production but more doable.

Christopher Plummer was not the first choice to play the photographer. Initially, the excellent Scandinavian actor Max Von Sydow was set to play Stieglitz, but he dropped out before production began because of a conflict in schedules. Martin Landau was selected next, but he too dropped out. Finally, Plummer came on board. He loved the script and quickly said yes. He became Alfred Stieglitz and is as sublime in the role as Jane Alexander is as Georgia O’Keeffe. Written by Julian Barry, best known for his Broadway play Lenny, the film illuminates the financially strapped art world as well as two of its most gifted artists. It reflects how Stieglitz was not just a superb photographer but a wheeler and dealer in the art world of their time and was a dominant force in bringing O’Keeffe to the attention of the art world.

georstieglitzHe was a father figure to many upcoming artists of his time. He had a circle of friends, all artists, who were part of his inner circle. Plummer captures all of this in his portrayal.  Jane Alexander’s depiction of O’Keeffe is as compelling as Plummer’s. Alexander has a somewhat of a physical resemblance to O’Keeffe that enhances it all.  Stieglitz was already married when he left his wife for O’Keeffe, twenty-four years younger. The two artists were opposites in just about every way except for artistic talent. Their life together was a constant battle of tug and pull. She tells him at one point that she loves him, but needs peace and quiet if she is to pursue her art.

When they first meet at his gallery, Alfred has a few of her charcoal drawings hanging, given to him by Georgia’s friend Anita Pollizter. As soon as O’Keeffe sees them hanging, she immediately begins to take them down only to be interrupted by Alfred who is incensed. When asked what she thinks she’s doing, Georgia tells him she is the artist’s and did not give him permission to hang them up. Doesn’t she realize what she did here? He answers. Of course, she does, Georgia responds. Do you think I am an idiot? Stieglitz replies, these are the work of someone whom attention must be paid!

Stieglitz was a bigger than life character: mischievous, loyal, and generous, yet he could be domineering, sexist, brooding and demanding. As much as he was forward-looking in his views in art, as a person, he was backward, still in the old world. O’Keeffe was the opposite; born in the Midwest (Wisconsin) she was way ahead of her time as a woman, an independent individual who insisted on her freedom.

The film does not just focus on their personal relationship. Unlike most biopics, much of the time is spent on their respective arts and on the Modernists movement Stieglitz fought to introduce to America. “Modernist are confronted by nothing but scorn in America.” He says at one point.

He sets O’Keeffe up in a studio, even though she tells him she must go back to Texas where she has a job teaching. “Why would anyone want to live west of the Hudson? There’s nothing out there except for Teddy Roosevelt.” He tells her, she won’t have to worry about money. All she has to do is paint.

Creative partnerships are a rocky road; Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were no different. We see Stieglitz photographing O’Keeffe, recreating some of his most famous works. How much the photographer fought for and supported her work. Her allegiance to Stieglitz forced her at times to submit to his demanding old-world nature. Stieglitz also was a philanderer, cheating on his first wife, Emmy with O’Keeffe and then later cheating on O’Keeffe after they married.[2]

At one of his roundtable dinners with other artists, Georgia meets Rebecca Strand (Diane Barry), wife of photographer Paul Strand (Randie Mell), Eventually, Georgia and Rebecca, make their way out to Taos and the art community run by Mabel Dodge Luhan (Sasha Von Scherler). From this point on, she came back to New York and Stieglitz on occasion.  She was always uncomfortable living in New York, and even more so during the summers spent at the Stieglitz compound in Lake George, upstate New York and Stieglitz’s ongoing affair with Dorothy Norman (Christina Hagg). Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946. O’Keeffe would spend the rest of her life at her Ghost Ranch just outside of Abiquiú, New Mexico.

The production values of this American Playhouse production are clearly visible. It’s very much a stage-bound production using lighting and the camera to hide its visual shortcomings. However, don’t let that deterred you from watching.

A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz is available on youtube. Click here!

Notes

[1] New York Times, Drawn From Life, July 23, 1991, Michael Kilian

[2] The film does not address O’Keeffe’s infidelities that were with men and women.  Chicago Tribune, Abigail Foerstner, July 28, 1991

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