Was Georgia O’Keeffe actually painting vulvas?

Yesterday was the last day of the excellent Tate Modern exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe art. Infamous for her ‘are they flowers or are they vaginas?’ paintings

Here’s three views on the nature of her work.

“Tanya Barson, who will curate the Tate Modern show, emphasised how much O’Keeffe had resisted the sexual reading into her paintings, which began in the 1920s but was then revived by feminists in the 1970s who took her work as a statement of female empowerment. The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who first promoted O’Keeffe’s work and later became her husband. Barson said she hoped the Tate retrospective would illustrate how this “cliched interpretation”, written almost 100 years ago and perpetuated by male art critics at the time, was “gendered and outdated”.

I think it is time to rethink those ideas about her work. They didn’t come from her, they came from him and we have to question the validity of those interpretations since she consistently denied them over six decades. — Tanya Barson

(From Hannah Ellis-Peterson’s article on The Guardian)

“Georgia O’Keeffe was only painting flowers, you see. Extreme close-ups of flowers. She never meant for them to be interpreted as vaginal imagery at all, and refused to cooperate with any…“women’s liberation” or “feminist” stuff that claimed she did.
Whoops.
HOW DID WE GET THIS SO WRONG? Have we really been interpreting her art this poorly for nearly a century? Shit. I guess we better have a look.”


To which author Susie then proceeds to reflect on a suite of O’Keefe paintings that look more and more vulva-esque. She makes a fun point at the end of the article that, yes, Georgia was indeed painting vulvae because

“Flowers are like . . . mostly vagina. It’s true: flowers are primarily made up of sex organs and things that surround the sex organs. In fact, they have both male and female sex organs… I don’t want to burst your bubble or anything, but you kind of were painting vaginas all that time. I know that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a flower is pretty much always a cunt.”

From Susie’s article over on Instatiable Book Sluts

“The feminist co-option of her art enraged O’Keeffe, who stated emphatically, ‘I am not a woman painter!’ By this time, she was already firmly ensconced in the pantheon of American art…and did not want her achievement typecast or marginalized in any way…Yet, in spite of O’Keeffe’s negative reaction to the feminists’ views, she was an exception in her day and was continually made aware of her gender in an art world where galleries, schools, museums and criticism were dominated by men. O’Keeffe was a member of the pro-suffrage National Women’s Party and once said”

‘I believe in women making their own living. It will be nice when women have equal opportunities and status with men so that it is taken as a matter of course.’ Georgia O’Keeffe

From this Phaidon article

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