What's the Story? Viewing Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own

Body: 

When I first saw the poster advertising Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own*, my heart raced with excitement. After my first impulse-- that I must not miss it-- my second, almost instantaneous thought was to wonder what story the exhibit would tell about the work of three artists with such distinctly different styles, artists who were women, yes, but of separate national origins and radically dissimilar life experiences. I had all sorts of ideas about the possible stories such an exhibit might tell, and in the twelve days before I took the train up to Vancouver to see it, I entertained myself with daydreaming about them.

Would the exhibit present each of the artists' work separately, or in conversation? Earlier in the summer, at the Benbow Museum in Calgary, I viewed "The Group of Seven in Western Canada." For this exhibit the curator had organized the paintings of each artist discretely, telling a different story about each individual artist's life and work, albeit with an emphasis on their personal and professional connections with one another as well as on the extent to which they had shared a modernist philosophy and vision of Canadian art. From the Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo exhibit, I hoped for something more. Not that I didn't find each of the artists and her work fascinating in their own right, which I did (and do). But the possibility that the exhibit might tell a complex story about their art, highlighting themes and accomplishments that might not be as visible in separate considerations of the artists' paintings, piqued my interest. While I love to hear about individual artists and their art, I find stories that put the work of different artists into conversation even more fascinating.

Art exhibits often tell stories about artists' lives and works, especially when the exhibits are not a part of a museum's permanent collection, just as art historians and critics, when discussing either individual paintings or entire bodies of work or even groups of artists, often put their descriptions and analyses in narrative form. Stories, therefore, tend to mediate how we see paintings. And such stories are almost always gendered. As Whitney Chadwick observes, "Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscriptions of sexual difference in representation"(23). Critics tend to characterize the style and technical execution of works presumed to have been painted by male artists as "virile," while they generally characterize the style of works presumed to have been painted by female artists as "effeminate," and the brushwork as "weak." When paintings long believed to have been the work of famous men are discovered to have actually been painted by women, critics inevitably make immediate and drastic revisions to the stories they've been telling about the paintings in question.

The case of Judith Leyster (1609-1660) is instructive. During the eighteenth century, when private collectors began to pay premium prices for the paintings of Frans Hals, Leyster's work came to be attributed to him, and the initials in the bottom corner of her paintings altered. In 1929, Juliane Harms wrote a series of articles that definitively established the attribution of a number of "Hals" paintings to Leyster. Previously, the brushwork of these paintings had been described as "manly" and "vigorous." Once their authorship was known, however, art historians like James Laver were able to say, as he did in 1964, "One has only to look at the work of a painter like Judith Leyster to detect the weakness of the feminine hand"(Chadwick, 22). Chadwick summarizes:

The finding during reattribution to lesser-known artists that works of art are "simply not up to the high technical standards" of the "Master" is common. The shifting language that often accompanies reattributions where gender is an issue is only one aspect of a larger problem. Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. Discussions of style are consistently cast in the terms of masculinity and femininity. Analyses of paintings are replete with references to "virile" handling of form or "feminine" touch.(23)

Alfred Stieglitz disseminated an extremely influential story about the work of Georgia O'Keeffe in the 1923 exhibit "Alfred Stieglitz Presents One Hundred Pictures: Oils, Watercolors, Pastels, Drawings by Georgia O'Keeffe, American." Stieglitz and the critics who worked with him consistently characterized "the symbolic forms and abstract, painterly structures" of the artists he sponsored "as aestheticized analogues of the artists' own gendered presences"(Brennan, 3). In an advance article in Vanity Fair meant to stimulate interest in the coming exhibition, critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote about O'Keeffe's work, "there is no stroke laid by her brush, whatever it is she may paint, that is not curiously, arrestingly female in quality. Essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures"(Brennan, 3). The Anderson Galleries' own critical statements suggested that O'Keeffe's "paintings provided a type of privileged symbolic access to the forms, feelings, and impulses of the artist's own gendered body." As Marcia Brennan notes,

The conceptual shift that Rosenfeld and his colleagues effected between O'Keeffe's actual body and the gendered structures of her paintings allowed writers to substitute paint for flesh, an imaginative operation in which O'Keeffe's nonfigural images became infused with a ubiquitous sense of her femininity, and her images in turn were thought to offer transparent views into the symbolic "bodies" of her paintings.(5) According to Brennan, even critics who expressed reservations about Stieglitz's presentation of paintings as "living human documents" quickly adopted the attitude that O'Keeffe's paintings offered "a clear case of Freudian suppressed desires in paint"(6), thereby making each O'Keeffe painting into a story about Georgia O'Keeffe's sexuality.

While critics have often regarded O'Keeffe's work as the key to the secrets of her sexual unconscious, they have just as often taken the sensationalized events of Frida Kahlo's life as keys to her paintings. Representations of Kahlo's life typically offer a spectacle of both physical and emotional suffering, ranging from her streetcar accident at age eighteen and the resulting series of operations and miscarriages to her marriage to the celebrated Diego Rivera, a man of many sexual affairs with other women, to her association with prominent leftist figures like Trotsky. Kahlo made bold and innovative use of images of herself in many of her paintings, and rather than being viewed in all their modernist (and often Surrealistic) complexity, these images have often served to illustrate the story of Frida Kahlo as a tragic, romantic (and in the US, exotic) heroine or, conversely, as a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing opportunist (as I once heard an NPR commentator describe her when protesting against the use of a Kahlo self-portrait on a US postage stamp). Some feminist critics have been interested chiefly in the story of specifically female experiences they see her as having recorded in her paintings (Herrera, 4), while others, like Janice Helland, demand that Kahlo's work be allowed to "speak" as "interventions that disrupt the dominant discourse": "She should be seen not as a Surrealist, nor as a member of any other Western modernist movement, nor exclusively as a painter of the female experience, but as a committed Third World cultural nationalist"(Helland, 405). Significantly, Helland begins her analysis of the Marxist and Mexican nationalist themes in Kahlo's work with a vivid anecdote about Kahlo's funeral:

Kahlo died eleven days after participating in a public protest opposed to American intervention in Guatemala. On 14 July 1954, her body lay in state in the magnificent foyer of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Much to the chagrin of Mexican officials, her coffin was draped with a large flag bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle superimposed upon a star. With her love of the unconventional and her talent for black humor, Kahlo, in all likelihood, would have enjoyed the uproar caused by this spectacle. (397)

Critics not only tell as many different stories about Kahlo's work as have been told about Frida Kahlo's life, the stories they tell about the work tend to be rooted in one of the various stories that are told about her life.

US critics have paid scant attention to the work of Emily Carr, but in Canada she is as familiar and even monumental a figure as O'Keeffe is in the US and Kahlo in Mexico. The Canadian public first came to know her through her writing, rather than her painting, beginning with the CBC's broadcasts of her fiction, then through the publication of collections of her stories, and finally through the posthumous publication of her autobiography. Decades after her death in 1945, a flood of biographies, plays, poetry, and even ballets have told so many stories about Carr that Stephanie Kirkwood Walker, in This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr, undertook an examination of the theoretical frameworks and historical development of such narratives. From the 1960s on, Carr's paintings were said to represent Canada to Canadians as the autobiography of a person who represented the soul of Canada. In the 1970s Carr was variously presented as an inspirational figure for school children, an eco-activist whose paintings offered a history of the cultural construction of British Columbia's landscape, and a female artist struggling--and winning late-- against tremendous odds. By the 1990s critics and playwrights had begun to characterize Carr as a powerful "shaman" who had lived and painted at the margins of two cultures, questing for meaning, her paintings expressions of her "inner spiritual condition." Her connection with the Group of Seven (most particularly with Lawren Harris), who, like Emily Carr, are currently a source of Canadian pride, has become prominent, and some critics now name her an "honorary member" of that male, Eastern Canadian fraternity, Carr having done, it is said, for British Columbia what they did for the rest of Canada. All of these stories told about Emily Carr either preceded or accompanied attention to her paintings. Since critics have most often characterized her paintings as depicting her relationship with the spiritual, it is not surprising that the stories told about her life mediate how Canadians-- critics and fans, both-- view them.

As I mounted the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I weighed the similarities and differences in these artists' stories instead of anticipating the feast for my eyes and spirit I expected the exhibit to offer me. And when, entering the exhibit, I found myself greeted by larger than life-sized photos of Carr as a very young woman, O'Keeffe as a very old one, and Kahlo in early middle age, I immediately-- and likely inappropriately-- began to wonder why Sharyn Udall, the curator, had chosen these particular ages for portraying each of the artists: did she intend an allusion to the feminist spiritual triad of virgin/mother/crone? A quotation of Emily Carr's had been mounted with these photographs, talking about art as "the things that our bodies are trying to give a spirit to, and our spirits are trying to provide with a bodily experience." Carr's use of the plural-- "our bodies" and "our spirits"-- in this context worked powerfully as an introductory statement suggesting an outlook and ambition that all three artists shared in common.

When I passed around the greeting partition and entered the interior of the exhibit, my mind let go of all its advance speculation. Immediately to the left of the partition I encountered an entire wall of Kahlo's work. Each powerful, visceral painting vibrated with intensity, demanding my fullest attention. Sol y Vida depicts a weeping fetus and a red-faced sun in the midst of golden, vulval vegetable profusion and roots, the third eye of its sun tearful. The satiny brushwork of Life How I Loved You figures lush fruit fairly pulsing with blood-red life. In almost shocking contrast, Self-Portrait with Diego on my Chest and Maria on My Brow, painted in the last months of Kahlo's life with uncharacteristically ragged brushwork, confronts us with an aged, harsh, almost beaten image in which not only the artist's pain but also signifiers of her most intimate relationships physically impinge upon or are incorporated within her body; its old, rough, almost battered frame matches the painting's tone perfectly.

The wall opposite offered paintings and drawings by O'Keeffe of an entirely different emotional temperament, accompanied by Stieglitz's photographs of her in 1918, Fritz Kaeser's of her in 1963, and a quote on the difficulty of understanding the world: "It is the unexplainable things in nature that make me feel the world is big, far beyond my understanding." I felt this sense of immensity in Lake George with Crows and Pelvis Series, the latter a great irregular oval solid of blue suggesting unfathomable space (though curiously without depth); the remote blue lake is shaped like a uterus, and the vast space of the ovoid in Pelvis Series implies a cool and powerful fertility. Dead Cedar Stump offers a different sense of the inexplicable; the dazzling brilliance of the leaves of its tree and sky creates a sense of vivid life in marked contrast to the stump, which resembles animal bones, a reminder of the indifference of the living world to the remains of once-living matter-- or, perhaps, to the living's dependence on the dead. In this first area of the exhibit, both Kahlo and O'Keeffe's paintings speak of life and fertility and of death, and of the mysterious and necessary relationship between them.

Since Emily Carr's work is one of my fiercest passions, coming upon a room hung exclusively with her paintings made me go weak at the knees. (Fortunately there were benches at hand, for those inclined to extended contemplation.) Often what seems to be the obvious focal point of a Carr painting from one distance or angle shifts with the viewer's perception, and a shift in perception often reveals objects or animals or symbols one missed when looking at the painting straight-on. Although there are seldom any human or even animal figures in Carr's pictures, they always contain a strong, kinetic element, insisting on what Carr called the "liveness" of the world. In Tree Trunk, for instance, the trunk of a pine illuminated by reflective light fairly bursts with a life force that seems to be pouring out of the trunk itself. Most enthralling for me, though, is Carr's use of light, which draws one deep inside the painting, beckoning the viewer towards something that lies just beyond her immediate vision. And finally-- disturbingly, for some viewers-- Carr makes one feel how alive jungle and forest are, capturing, for the viewer, a sensation a Karen Joy Fowler narrator describes:

You're never alone in the jungle. You can't see through the twist of roots and leaves and vines, the streakish, tricky light, but you've always got a sense of being seen. As I moved from Carr to Carr, I repeatedly recalled this or that O'Keeffe that I'd seen minutes before. The Mountain thrums powerfully with life, its massive, feminine bulk towering over and dwarfing a small huddle of cabins crouched at its base-- displaying, it occurred to me, the same sense of immensity O'Keeffe depicts in her painting of Lake George. When I saw Grey (which I noted from the date had to have been painted shortly after Carr saw an exhibition of O'Keeffe's paintings in New York), a highly abstract painting of forest, it struck me as having merged Lawren Harris's style of painting mountains with O'Keeffe's sense of immensity, while being ineluctably marked with Carr's own kinetic power. Carr's Tree Trunk, dated 1929-30, resonates with O'Keeffe's 1929 Dead Tree, Bear Lake, which Carr no doubt saw when she attended O'Keeffe's show in New York in Spring, 1930. But as if to return the compliment, O'Keeffe's later From the White Pines, which depicts staggeringly grand white cliffs enclosing a vast, dark, suggestively vaginal cavity of space within themselves, with a scurry of green and the bare suggestion of a huddle of buildings at the base, offers a Southwestern version of Carr's The Mountain.

In addition to the separate displays of the three artists' work the exhibit offered a number of smaller groupings, two of them explicitly highlighting particular themes they explored in common. A room designated "Culture" provided examples of each artist's imaginative engagement with indigenous culture and traditions and the curator?s statement problematizing their appropriation. Another room, titled "The Private Self," displayed paintings the curator designated as self-portraits, including O'Keeffe's Head with Broken Pot, which features a human skull, Three Small Rocks, Big, in which two small rocks are juxtaposed in a sexually suggestive arrangement with a larger rock, and In the Patio II, a sharply defined, orange and black abstract conveying that sense of immensity characteristic of many of the paintings by O'Keeffe that Udall selected for the exhibit. For Kahlo's figuring of "private self" the curator chose Self-Portrait with Monkey and Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, a strikingly formal representation. Although Emily Carr's best known self-portrait as a middle-aged, powerful woman was shown at an earlier venue of the exhibit, the painting's owner did not permit its display in Vancouver; the substitute, depicting the artist working at her easel with her back to the viewer, hints at an earlier stage of the story Udall tells about the artists' creation of identities that gave them the space they needed to work. As Udall summarizes in her book, O'Keeffe "moved from identification with her own experiences, seen in the early sensation-derived work, to paintings that identify with the whole of being"; Kalho's "body became the seen or unseen premise beneath each act of painting"; and although Carr's "paintings began as original narration of her own experience, she learned to give shape as much to what she imagined as to what she saw." "[I]f all art is in some measure autobiographical, their paintings provide not maps but glimpses of the terrain through which their journeys can be tracked"(306).

Postmodern theory, culture, and values relentlessly dismiss modernism as a deluded attempt to unveil the mysteries of the world in order to master it. Carr, Kahlo, and O'Keeffe were modernists driven to "get at" what lay behind the surface of reality, searching ceaselessly for what Carr called "the liveness" of things. In her book, Udall notes that all three artists were devotees of Walt Whitman and were heavily influenced by Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the American work of D.H. Lawrence. However much I agree in theory with the postmodernist critique of modernism, however pass? I might find the notions of spirituality that inspired these artists' work, every painting in the exhibit affected me powerfully. The exhibit as a whole told me a story about North America that speaks to my own experience of it. That these artists shared the gender that has gotten short shrift from mainstream art critics and historians only struck me at the moment in the exhibit when, gazing upon the sheer variety of age and class and ethnic backgrounds of my fellow viewers, I recognized why the atmosphere of the exhibit seemed so intimate and familiar. A majority of the viewers were girls and women, in about the same proportion to men as one finds at the feminist science fiction convention WisCon. What strikes me now, as I think about it, is how, carried away by the force and sweep of such powerful creativity, until that moment I did not think once about the work as being specifically by women. That was, I think, because these artists were equals, and their work among the finest twentieth-century North America has to offer us.

Can we talk about art without telling gendered stories about it? Not at this time, no. But for a couple of hours, Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo allowed me to forget gender difference to an extent I'd never have thought possible in an art museum. There's hope yet.

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[*] This traveling exhibit, curated by Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, opened at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Toronto on June 29, 2001, moved next to the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, then on to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., in early 2002, and concluded its tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where I viewed it on August 15, 2002. The contents of the show varied slightly with each venue because the owners of some of the paintings gave limited permission for display.

Works Cited

  • Marcia Brennan, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001

  • Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, London: Thames and Hudson, 1991

  • Karen Joy Fowler, "What I Didn't See," SciFiction.com, July, 2002

  • Janice Helland, "Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo" in Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds., The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, New York: HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 394-407

  • Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, New York: Harper & Row, 1983

  • Sharon Rohlfsen Udall, Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000

  • Stephanie Kirkwood Walker, This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996
Seattle
August, 2002
©2002 L. Timmel Duchamp

This essay first appeared in the Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, No. 11.

Publication Date: 
2002