Georgia O'Keeffe and the Eros of Place
By Bram Dijkstra
Princeton University Press; 274 pages; $29.95
Bram Dijkstra, a professor of American and Comparative Literature at UC, San Diego and the author of "Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood," proves that assumption wrong. With "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Eros of Place," he has written a lively, authoritative reassessment of her career. Unafraid to challenge the accepted wisdom, he approaches O'Keeffe and her work from a fresh and unconventional perspective.
The new book is Dijkstra's attempt to strip away the layers of cultural bias that have accumulated around the artist. In particular, the author strives to move O'Keeffe out from the shadow cast by her mentor and husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. By extension, he also downplays the magnitude of the European modernists' influence on O'Keeffe, in spite of the enthusiasm with which Stieglitz championed their work.
In the volume's introductory chapter, Dijkstra writes, "...O'Keeffe's work has, in recent years, all too often had to take a backseat to fantasies of how she lived produced by the celebrity voyeurs of our contemporary media; these, instead of paying attention to what the artist did with where she lived, have instead tried to uncover virtually her every step, or perceived mistep. In the process they have turned O'Keeffe into an icon of her art--a preternatural creature, shamanistic, exalted, and removed from everyday experience."
Dijkstra sees a definite connection between O'Keeffe and the tonalist painters who were popular in America at the turn of the century. He writes of tonalism, "It differed from other forms of landscape painting primarily in its emphasis on a philosophical contemplation of the emotional analogues between the moods of nature--its atmospheric conditions--and the spiritual condition of humanity." Tonalism was also seen as a somewhat "effiminate" style, not quite robust enough to stand up to "masculine" art that celebrated the intellect, instead of the "femine" realm of physical being.
Dijkstra takes great pains to remind his readers just how prevalent the rigid belief in gender dimorphism was among scientists, intellectuals and laypeople during O'Keeffe's lifetime. It was commonly assumed that men and women were fundamentally different creatures, each suited for very specialized job. He documents the absurd lengths to which various commentators went to prove that it was the male "vital essences" which produced true creativity and genius. He even quotes Ezra Pound on the physiognomy of the brain: "it is more than likely that the brain itself, is, in origin and development, only a sort of great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve."
"Georgia O'Keeffe and the Eros of Place" details the artist's struggle to be seen as more than merely a "woman artist" and to develop a quintessentially American, humanist response to the early European modernists' disdain for natural forms. Dijkstra accomplishes this by delving into areas largely ignored by other critics. For example, he gives more credit for the shaping her aesthetic vision to John Vanderpoel, O'Keeffe's drawing instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago, than most other biographers have been willing to credit. Dijkstra also takes time to explore O'Keeffe's mostly neglected illustrations for "Vanity Fair" and "The Masses," a radical periodical of the mid-1910s, and how those experiments affected her personal style.
"Georgia O'Keeffe and the Eros of Place" is sometimes tough, dense going, but it rewards the persistent reader by shedding new light on a remarkable career. Dijkstra writes of O'Keeffe, "Her art affirms the indelible link between ourselves and the world that surrounds us," and his book is a sharp and lucid explication of her remarkable gift.
(c) 1999 by Michael Berry