Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian Flower Paintings


You would be forgiven for thinking that you knew well Georgia o’keeffethe abundant work of. The modernist forms and avant-garde compositions of his floral, landscape and cityscapes paintings are so ubiquitous with his name that a mere mention instantly conjures up the creamy and sterile still lifes of his New Mexico home; the luscious lines of its phallic calla lilies; its vertiginous skyscrapers with decorative block shapes. But little has been documented about her time in Hawaii – one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, certainly a natural fit for the planter. That is to say until now.

A new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden and an accompanying catalog, Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii, gives a new facet to his beloved work. It’s a perfectly summarized chapter – unlike those of her countless journeys to and from her adobe house in the Mexican desert – since the works are delimited by a nine-week trip she made in 1939. On a commission from Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Food Company Inc), O’Keeffe was sent to the tropical archipelago to undertake two paintings that would be used for the brand’s advertising campaigns.

Naturally, O’Keeffe returned with more than the two commissioned works. But the resulting bevvy is a concise capsule nonetheless: totaling 20 paintings of the islands’ verdant valleys, exotic-looking plant life, and coves covered in black lava, the collection is brought together here for the first time since 1940, when O’Keeffe exhibited works from the gallery of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But this 20-person body comes with exquisite props through a series of gelatin silver photographic studies of the natural subject, as well as a full Winsor & Newton sketchbook. This latter document, filled with his sparse line drawings that marked the beginning of his later paintings, was a joy to academics close to his work. As her usual practice at home was to pick and work from a random filing cabinet each day, her assignments were rarely arranged in chronological order. But during this trip, she only had one which today allows experts to trace the meticulous developments of her practice.

The resulting series is a jubilant study, evident in the sheer inspiration she drew from her tour through the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Honolulu. From the voluptuous, velvety ginger bud to the feathered petals of a white lotus, to the fruity-hued Heliconia (birds of paradise) or the stark elegance of an ornamental banana – many of which stood out against a euphoric azure sky. – O’Keeffe carefully cataloged the dizzying array of plants that surrounded him. As she wrote to Stieglitz during her stay: “I wish you could see the flowers I have – Helen Richards gave me another huge chain of white flowers – the dinner host gave me last night a four strand chain of buds so sweet. – it fills the whole room. A man walked up to me at the party and handed me a pink camellia with a very big beautiful button – it is so pretty it seems impossible that it was real – Mrs. Richards [sic] my mother brought me the first gardenia she bloomed this year to take to the party – Then the big bunch of very big antherium [sic] – pink – with big calla lilies – I have to start painting soon.

And although O’Keeffe has invariably denied the erotic descriptions of his works, his cheerful blossoms remain present and correct with the painter’s signature sensuality, while the lush green valleys disappear into a yonic “V” that separates the horizon. in two. Perhaps most enjoyable, though, is seeing such a familiar practitioner intertwine with a whole new landscape, as she confirmed in the 1940 show’s introduction:

“If my painting is what I give back to the world for what the world gives me, I can say that these paintings are what I have to give now during the three months [sic] in Hawaii gave me… You see new things quickly everywhere when everything looks new and different. It has to become part of his world, part of what we have to talk about – we paint it slowly… Maybe the new place makes them bigger. [sic] world a little. Maybe you take your own world and you can’t see anything else.


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