‘I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.’
I’m standing in a room full of Georgian O’Keeffe’s flower paintings. They have travelled from America to be a part of the exhibit O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith: Making Modernism currently being exhibited at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.
The flowers may not have fidgeted while O’Keeffe was painting them but to this viewer they look as though they defy the confines of the canvas. O’Keeffe’s paintings are extreme close ups, often the images are a series of delicately curved lines; perplexing and pleasing in equal measure. Without the accompanying panels it would be nearly impossible to decipher the subject matter of some of her works.
Painted onto finely woven canvases the often bold and brilliant colour palate takes on a shimmery, lucid quality. O’Keeffe has focused on the fine details of each flower, from the veins running through each petal to the elegant curve of an orchid’s stem.
O’Keeffe’s magnification of the miniscule details allows the viewer to peer straight into the heart of each flower. This sometimes causes viewers to move in unusual ways. On this afternoon it seemed as though each visitor to the gallery took on the characteristics of bees or butterflies. All bowing forward as though they are dipping their noses into each flower. Then leaning back, viewers would float from left to right, twisting and turning their bodies to accomodate the asymmetrical angles. Often people would circle back to revisit a flower and start the process of inquiry all over again.
O’Keeffe once explained her intention: ‘When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.’
Existing alongside this rather benign observation of O’Keeffe’s was a frank admission ‘I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.’ And what things O’Keeffe did. She took the New York art scene by storm, garnered international success then moved to New Mexico where she took up the hobby of collecting the weathered carcasses of desert animals. It is here she said she found her spiritual home. O’Keeffe’s landscapes are expansive. Her perspective is still playful. In one piece O’Keeffe paints the sky as seen through the boney opening of a pelvis.
In a neighboring room sits the works of two Australian artists, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, both of whom were also keen observers of the natural world and captured what they saw in equally transgressive ways.
Like O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston also praised the virtues of using flowers as a subject. Preston’s flowers also overwhelm the size of the canvas giving the impression that the subject matter cannot be contained by the frame, rather it seeps outwards indicating that much more is happening beyond the canvas. Preston does not establish a clear focal points for the viewer, nor did she abide by the rules that have traditionally governed perspective post the Renaissance. This encourages the viewer to work to orientate themselves within the image.
Yet that is where the similarity in aesthetics end, Preston’s work is nothing like O’Keeffe’s. Preston’s work was consciously and deliberately informed by her surrounds. Her early work captures her life in Sydney – such as tea parties and so on. Eventually her subject matter becomes wholly focused on Australia’s natural environment. A panel quotes Preston: ‘Art is the tangible symbol of a country. What is Australia going to offer the world as her contribution to the arts?’ Preston grappled with this question and sought to find the essence of what makes Australia unique and in that quest travelled to the Northern Territory to study Aboriginal art, thereby deepening her understanding of the complexity of the Australian landscape.
Preston’s work and perspective of the Australian landscape is starkly different to Grace Cossington Smith’s sun drenched, strikingly shadow-less paintings. Cossington Smith remarked that her ‘chief interest…has always been colour, but not flat crude colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine; light must be in it.’
A critic described Cossington Smith as having ‘mastery of the domestic sublime’ and fittingly worked in the garden shed of her family home for 65 years. Indeed, she painted images from her sister knitting socks, to wardrobes and tea sets. She also closely followed the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, painting an extensive series of images of the two arms of the bridge slowly inching towards one another, though she never painted the bridge in its completed state. She is known for her short, staccato brushwork, with each image created from thousands of dots and dashes, giving the viewer a sense of thousands of stories within each painting – creating an exuberance in even the most mundane moments.
Though both Preston and Cossington Smith lived in Sydney, they worked independently of one another. The pairing of the two artists in one space demonstrates how divergent their approaches to art and experimentation were and informs the viewer of how diverse the coursing of the modernist movement could be, despite some cultural overlap.
Initially the exhibit was to include up to twelve artists. It is fortunate that this idea was shelved. By focusing on just three artists each artist has enough wall space to exhibit paintings from various points in their career. The exhibit becomes a visual essay and homage to early 20th century modernism. This closer examination of each artist captures the progression of their changing perspectives. It was not something that arose out of nothing, it came from continual reiterations and discourse with themselves, their influences and of course the world around them.
The panels throughout the exhibit are helpful and engaging, without detracting from the paintings. They have been written with plain and accessible language, rather than dense slabs of esoteric ‘art-speak’. They typically feature quotes from the artists and small, interesting details about the artist’s lives which contextualizes how trail-blazing each were in the greater field of the art world.
It would have been a mammoth task to curate this exhibit as not only did each artist have a prolific career, none of them rested on their laurels. They all explored several mediums, tested and adapted techniques, dramatically altered their subject matter, explored complex palates, and engaged in an ongoing discourse with a changing world.
While the exhibit features the work of three women, it is their work and not their gender that is celebrated. A quote from Georgia O’Keeffe is stuck onto the mirror in the bathroom: ‘Men put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.’
The artists’ curiosity about the world fills the exhibit space with a tangible sense of energy. People, perhaps inspired by the artists’ exterior perspective, linger by the large window in the centre of the gallery space. They stand and study the view which overlooks a crowd of gumtrees whose branches are thwacking in the winds as the distinct warble of birdsong filters into the space.
O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith: Making Modernism will be at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art until February 19.