Flower power: what do garden designers think of Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork?

Georgie O'Keeffe artwork
Nature can be a mesmerising, charming and erotic muse, says Tim Richardson  Credit: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

A major new exhibition at Tate Modern is dedicated to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), the farm-girl from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who went on to wow the New York art scene in the Twenties with her strikingly graphic flower portraits, which pulsate with fecundity. Gardeners will instantly recognise that here is a painter who understands the power of plants and their primary mission in the world: to reproduce themselves. It is impossible either to miss or dismiss the sexual connotations of O’Keeffe’s depictions of the inner life of flowers.

O’Keeffe’s flowers are not the elegant forms so delicately and assiduously recorded in still-life paintings and in botanical art. They are powerful, dramatic, even slightly dangerous presences

In paintings such as Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932), left, O’Keeffe’s intention was not botanical accuracy. Instead she exposed the source of the flower’s indomitable power: its inbuilt urge to go forth and multiply. As a result, O’Keeffe’s flowers are not the elegant forms so delicately and assiduously recorded in still-life paintings and in botanical art. They are powerful, dramatic, even slightly dangerous presences which seek to dominate the world around them. There is a strong internal rhythm to these works, a flowing movement and energy in the “lines” (a word she often used in titles) of the plant forms. 

Faraway, Nearby. 1937 Credit: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shuttersto​ck

Tate Modern has not been able to resist using a flower as the poster for this show, but the curators have been candid about downplaying this aspect of O’Keeffe’s work in favour of other themes. The flower paintings occupy just one room of the exhibition. This apparent squeamishness about O’Keeffe’s most celebrated subject matter is not simply a matter of redressing an imbalance in our appreciation of the artist’s work. There is a feminist – or rather, academic-feminist – agenda at work, too.

It is these two aspects of the artist’s oeuvre – Modernism and regionalism – that Tate Modern is emphasising above the flower portraits

As her career progressed, O’Keeffe herself sought to suppress a reputation as a “flower painter”, partly because this subject matter was (and is) glibly associated with female artists. The context is Freud’s theories of the unconscious, as promulgated by O’Keeffe’s male contemporaries, including her own husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

In reaction, O’Keeffe switched her attention to the landscapes of Southwest America – New Mexico especially – and she is also now presented as an important figure in the development of abstract painting. It is these two aspects of the artist’s oeuvre – Modernism and regionalism – that Tate Modern is emphasising above the flower portraits. It’s a reading that seeks to suppress the idea that there are sexual overtones in the work. The argument goes that this is another example of a “masculinist” tendency to view art made by women as preoccupied with bodily functions, especially reproduction.

Oriental Poppies, 1927 Credit: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shuttersto​ck

This interpretation does not account for the fact that flowers are sexual beings, and that they exist principally in order to reproduce themselves. The majority of visitors will still be drawn to the flower paintings above all else – and they will note the sexual elements, too. Anyone who knows plants cannot help but be aware of the affinity between humans and plants in this respect. So it seems reasonable to conclude that O’Keeffe noticed it, too.

Fortunately it is easy to bypass the theories and just enjoy the work. Away from the flowers, canvases such as Autumn Trees – The Maple (1924) capture the psychic impact of plants on their surroundings. The crimson, gold and deep brown of Autumn Leaves – Lake George, NY (1924) reflects the boisterousness of nature on occasion. There are even a few rather strange still-lifes: Apple Family – 2 (c. 1920) presents a group of plump, rosy apples huddled together on a white cloth; while the subject of The Eggplant (1924) is lent a certain dignity, resembling some giant bruised stone. In these paintings one gains a sense of O’Keeffe’s respect for plant forms as living beings.

As a way of assessing O’Keeffe’s affinity with plant forms, we asked four leading garden designers to respond spontaneously to specific paintings in the show – as horticulturists and art lovers. 

Helen Dillon 

Jimson Weed / White Flower No 1 (1932)

Helen Dillon pictured in her potting shed Credit:  Martin Pope

I’ve never seen a picture like this, where the sexual anatomy is so obvious. The leaves are curled up in an almost ecstatic way. The fact the picture is cropped so tightly makes the flower seem even more powerful because it is so “in your face”. These paintings really do send shivers up my spine – because they are so blatant. You can’t deny them or miss them or cast your eyes anywhere else.

To start with, the flower seems to be saying, “Aren’t I good?” But I think this is quite an evil flower, if you look at him closely. (Or is it a her?) The little hooks on the petal edges seem quite threatening. This flower is poisonous and is only active in the evening. There is a wonderful word for that: vespertine. It is derived from “Vespers”. Such a deliciously dangerous idea.

Piet Oudolf 

Abstraction Blue (1927)

"The painter is trying to pull you into the work – it has a certain depth, and creates a kind of longing to discover more," said Piet Oudolf  Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

I prefer things when they are not immediately clear. That way, you are able to discover more. Abstraction Blue could be an iris, or perhaps one should say it was inspired by an iris?

When I first saw O’Keeffe’s work I thought it was sensual. And that’s what people say. But I think it is more. In a way, the painter is trying to pull you into the work – it has a certain depth, and creates a kind of longing to discover more. Also a feeling of desire. 

Her other works – mainly the landscapes – create a kind of distance, as if she is saying, “This is mine; that is yours”. The flower paintings are more a kind of mythology, creating these sensations of longing and desire. It’s not really visual anymore.

The flower colour is not recognisable [in nature] but this painting has nothing to do with colour. I think it’s about texture and structure, not colour – and I recognise that. [In my own work] I never find that it can’t be a flower if there is no colour. The colour O’Keeffe has chosen makes the flower seem simple and tells the story without taking you too far away.

I think she loves flowers and understands that flowers can do so much to people. She brings it back to simple things.

Isabel Bannerman 

Calla Lilies on  Red (1928)

Isabel Bannerman at Trematon Castle Credit: Jay Williams

Calla lilies are as exotically fascinating as their name implies. There is a magnetism about them which I remember feeling even as a child observing their weird, white perfection of texture and form, coupled with those lustrous green leaves.

O’Keeffe’s handling of colour and paint gives a super reality to the abstraction: blacks are velvety, greens livid. Lilies have a convent purity  but all is inflamed in a lipstick-red shimmering  out to fuchsia pink. The picture is a celebration of living life, and hence it is sensual.

Given that the O’Keeffe mythologising has landed her work with such a backwash of Freudian flotsam, it is interesting that she has chosen not to show the spadix – from the Latin for ‘sword’ or ‘blade’ – upon which multiple flowers are arranged like yellow pigment powder. The composition shows only the protective veil of two spathes, which are not petals, but which do act as pollinator attractors in the absence of any scent.

Whether planting or photographing plants I am repeatedly ambushed by nature’s beautiful, powerful and sometimes menacing forms of display and decay. O’Keeffe was always looking for form and abstracting it. Sometimes she used close-cropping and magnifying in the way of photography to do this, especially with plants, but above all I think she was just painting fearlessly all that she found in nature.

Jinny Blom 

Dark Iris No 1 (1927)

Garden designer Jinny Blom Credit: Rii Schroer

With the flower paintings, there’s the obvious sexual explanation. The iris is very phallic and also refers to women’s anatomy. In this painting it’s the sheer beauty of the iris – those velvety petals. I think she gets this really well. The flower is sensual, beautiful, scented and secret. 

Irises are some of my favourite plants. They are very intense. Gardening is a sensory act; you are exploring a different aspect of yourself. You put your nose in things, your hands in things. When you are gardening, you become very liberated.

On a Chelsea garden once I used a huge black iris called ‘Dusky Challenger’. I remember saying to someone that it looked like a black-satin nightie you can order from a colour supplement. It’s slightly corny – but it can work.