Monday, September 8, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 6)

The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe began her official artistic career in Texas, where she became an art teacher in public schools.  Her art around this period of her life, which she produced in her spare time, showed immediate fascination in the beauty of the dry, open, western landscape.  While in Texas, she began to paint watercolors based on her response to the flat, stark surroundings.  She drew her inspiration from nature and would continue to do so even after she moved to New York and for the rest of her long career.  Her subjects often reflected the environments which she saw along her travels.  She painted pictures of New York skyscrapers as well as the deserts and mountains of her beloved southwest.  This broader view of nature and attention to large landscapes (such as one will find in the desert) imbued her art with a tone of vastness and natural beauty.  The simple elegance of her style also denoted a form of American realism in her approach to painting.  But her later career turned to a different focus, something very small and otherwise ordinary and clich√©; yet her emphasis on this subject matter would award her the iconic artistic reputation for which she is remembered most today.
The artist turned from landscapes to flowers.  This directly contrasted her prior thematic approach to painting large subjects; nonetheless, she threw herself into her artistic study of flowers, and she chose to paint them similarly to the way in which she fashioned her landscape scenes.  Because a flower is so small, so easy to overlook, O'Keeffe was determined to paint it in such a way that it could not be ignored.  The result was a startling close-up view, painted in sharp-focus.  Here she's painted a super zoom-in close-up of a White Flower on Red Earth, and the bud takes up almost the entire canvas.  The before-gentle blossom now becomes a thing to lose oneself in, it's almost that daunting.  It is, unto itself, a globe of nature with a centrifugal growth and fully rounded diameter.  Its expansion toward the viewer in the painting seems almost to envelop us, drawing us into the central stigma of the flower.  Certainly no flowers which we have looked at in art history have ever been painted this way.
Of course a flower bears connotative symbolism.  Flowers often stand for beauty, nature, and love.  To paint these subjects in such a new light carries with it the implications of that approach onto the symbolic interpretation of such imagery.  Certainly beauty functions appropriately as an artistic aesthetic, to enlarge a flower to take up the whole canvas of a painting.  I mean, one of the expectations we bring to the table when we look at art is that we want it to be beautiful, right?  (Do you find these paintings beautiful?)  Or maybe there is something unsettling about expanding something so small to a larger-than-life size, an image stark, vivid, and in-your-face.  Is this an expression of love (another common association of flowers as symbols)?  Whether or not accurately suited to a connotative theme, O'Keeffe's flowers strike the eye, like Magritte's apple in The Listening Room, as objects blown out of proportion, almost surreally large and, in a way, intimidating in their huge, central placement within the frame.  But it's not anything surreal; it's just a painting of a flower.  This is the ability of art to alter perspectives on otherwise small or ordinary phenomena.  To separate the traditional representation of the flower into a completely new style of appearance is consistent with the ideological movements within Modern Art, which largely sought to redefine art within the Postmodern world.

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