An American Master in Germany – Georgia O’Keeffe at the Hypo Kunsthalle

4 Feb

For the first time there is a retrospective of the works of Georgia O’Keeffe being exhibited in Germany.  In Munich until May, Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work at the Hypo Kunsthalle introduces visitors to the grande dame of American Art.  O’Keeffe ranks with Warhol as one of the most identifiable American artists of the twentieth century.  This traveling exhibition, which has previously been in Rome and will continue to Helsinki, was organized by the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and features over 70 of the artist’s works.  O’Keeffe is brought European audience who might not be completely familiar with her.  Overall, it’s an absolute success.

But first, I know what you’re thinking.  And no, despite the frequent jokes not all of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are thinly veiled representations of female genitalia.  She actually resented the fact that her artwork was seen merely as a statement of her gender instead of, well, artwork.  Although she did do a few paintings that seem rather feminine – note the two clam shell paintings near the beginning of the exhibition – she stopped using such forms when she realized people were critiquing the works based on Freudian psychology instead of art.

The exhibition covers all her subjects in a sweeping introduction to her career, from art school to final works.  Far from being a dry chronology, the retrospective is enhanced by the frequent photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which were taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz.  At the same time that we see her art develop we also see her develop from a mousey art teacher to the strong, self-assured artist wandering the New Mexico landscape who is so familiar to us.  Indeed the exhibition itself begins not with a work of art, but a slide show of photographs of the artist.  From the beginning it’s not a show about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, but rather a show about Georgia O’Keeffe the artist.

If there is one problem with this exhibition it’s the overall design.  Here in Munich the exhibition is done in an austere, modern style.  Large gray walls are only partly covered with artworks.  Especially as we reach O’Keeffe’s time in New Mexico, with its warm tones and sense of space, the bright Southwestern landscapes seem completely at odds with their surroundings.  Although not able to put my finger on it while visiting the exhibition, later when I was researching it and saw clips from its stop in Rome I realized what had been bothering me.  In Rome the rooms were smaller and warmer, allowing the visitor to feel more like the paintings are windows to another place instead of art on a wall.

But still this is a highly worthwhile exhibition for anyone who has the slightest interest in art.  Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the most accessible artists of the twentieth century.  Partly this was due to her personality and her status as an icon of the American Southwest, but mostly it’s because her paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Even those who don’t normally like abstract art are taken in by O’Keeffe’s use of color and contrast.  There’s a confidence in her paintings that can only be appreciated when you see the confidence in her eyes.  Fortunately Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work demonstrates both.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work runs in Munich until May 13, 2012

Open daily 10:00 – 20:00
Admission: €11, Students €5, Mondays half price all admission
Audio guide available in German and English for €5.  Be aware  that the audio guide isn’t available until after the coat check, so keep your money out if you want one.



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