on art and those other elements

O'KeeffeTheir fleshy curves and folds so unlike the artist’s own toned body suggest possible associations with other elements of human anatomy.  This was written on the gallery description accompanying one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings that I saw at the de Young Museum recently.  I presume the curators sought to explain the context behind the piece, and how O’Keeffe had suggested it depicted her legs as she rowed across Lake George with her lover Alfred Stieglitz.  Um.  If you say so, Georgia.

While I was growing up there were fine art photographs and gallery pieces hanging on the walls of our dining room.  Two prominent Ansel Adams photographs.  A Ruth Bernhard nude.  And a Georgia O’Keeffe reproduced print.  Long before I had a single course in critical theory or art history, I looked at that O’Keeffe — each night at dinner to be exact– and what did I see?  A big vagina.  In the gallery today?  Vivid colorful unmistakable vaginas.  Flowers, feminine and splayed open with onlookers gazing into them to study their brush strokes.  The sensuality (and scandal) in these images I suppose is what has drawn people to O’Keeffe’s work, but I’m still giggling from across that table.  Especially at the people who are not seeing the big hoohaw in front of them and still hang it on the wall.  The artist herself bristled at this interpretation of her work and insisted she was not working with “feminine iconography” but only painting what she saw in nature: and that would be flowers, people!  Um.  If you say so, Georgia. But these look pretty much like vaginas to me:

Blue Flowers     okeeffe     series1

Why protest so much?  I think she should have run with this, don’t you?  What’s wrong with feminine iconography?  Men and women.  Straight or gay.  Human beings are drawn to the feminine life source.  We associate the feminine with creativity, with comfort, connection and love.  Feminine iconography has been rendered in art throughout history, from carved idols to cave paintings to modern photography.  It even shows up in contemporary architecture and gasp in the Church.  This past Christmas I took my mother to a choral concert at a magnificent cathedral recently constructed in the Diocese of Oakland.  It’s a Catholic church, mind you, and when I took one look at it, what did I see . . . a big vagina, of course.  To be more specific, it’s a cavernous womb.  A light-filled holy place of worship beautifully named Cathedral of Christ the Light but now affectionately called among other things “The Vagina Church.”

I am sure the Bishop who presided over the design and the architects and builders insist, like O’Keeffe, that this is just a majestic glass building.  I am sure they didn’t gather around the conference table bursting with giggles and obsession with feminine iconography and say, I know!  let’s design the facade to look like gigantic labia and oh, let’s have the visitors walk through those labia and into the sanctuary — the womb of Mother Church — where a five story high phallic hologram of Christ awaits them behind the altar.  No.  I’m sure they’d dismiss any of these associations with those other elements of human anatomy as simply preposterous because they make us uncomfortable– it’s just a work of high tech modern design, people!  But you take a look at the photos and decide for yourself.  Regardless of what you or I see, this building is a beautiful expression of the artistic vision, and like all works of art, O’Keeffe’s paintings or the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Light, they engage us in a conversation about the mysteries and wonder of creation.  With a notably feminine touch.

christthelightentry     christthelightceiling     Cathedral_interior1

If you go, Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George is at the De Young Museum in San Francisco through May 11, 2014.  Highlights for me were her Lake George Barn paintings, the quotations scattered throughout the gallery space, as well as the collected letters of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, a ten pound tome entitled My Faraway One available for purchase in the gift shop.

. . . he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all . . . .

~ Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses

[dot_recommends]    Email This Post


  1. What a great essay! And, yes. Flowers and Church–hoohas all.

Leave a Reply