Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii Flower Paintings

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Voluptuous hibiscus and verdant green valleys are the spoils of the artist’s island sojourn in 1939

You would be forgiven for thinking you were well-versed in Georgia O’Keeffe’s bountiful oeuvre. The Modernist shapes and avant-garde compositions of her floral, landscape and cityscape paintings are so ubiquitous with her name that at a mere mention one can instantly conjure the creamy barren still lifes of her New Mexico home; the luscious lines of her phallic calla lilies; her soaring skyscrapers in blocky Deco shapes. But little has been documented of her time spent in Hawaii – one the most biologically diverse places on earth, surely a natural fit for the plantswoman. That is, until now.

A new exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden and an accompanying catalogue, Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii, lends a new facet to her well-loved body of work. It’s a neatly encapsulated chapter – unlike those from her countless journeys to-and-from her adobe house in the Mexican desert – since the works are demarcated 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 came back with more than the two commissioned works. But the resulting bevvy is a concise capsule nonetheless: totalling 20 paintings of the islands’ verdant valleys, exotic-seeming plant life and the brooding black-lava clad coves, the collection is here reunited for the first time since 1940 when O’Keeffe exhibited the works at her husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery. But this 20-strong body comes complete with exquisite accoutrements by way of a series of silver gelatin print photo studies of the natural subject matter, as well as a full-to-the-brim Winsor & Newton sketchbook. This latter document, filled with her sparse line drawings which etched out the inception of her later paintings, was a joy to academics close to her work. Since her usual practice at home was to pick out and work from a workbook at random each day, her works rarely laid in any chronological order. But on this trip she had just the one, which today allows experts today to chart the careful developments of her practice.

The resulting series is a jubilant study, evident in which is the sheer inspiration she took from her visit across the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Honolulu. From the velvety voluptuous ginger bud to the feathered petals of a white lotus, the fruity hued Heliconia (birds of paradise) or the rigid elegance of an ornamental banana – many of which were set against an euphoric azure sky – O’Keeffe carefully catalogued the dizzying array of plants that surrounded her. As she wrote to Stieglitz during her stay: “I wish you could see the flowers I have – Helen Richards gave me another enormous white chain of flowers – the host at dinner last night gave me a four strand chain of such sweet smelling buds last night – it fills the whole room. A man walked up to me at the party and handed me a pink camellia with a very large handsome bud – it is so pretty it seems impossible that it is real – Mrs Richards [sic] mother brought me the first gardenia she has had blooming this year to wear at the party – Then the large bunch of very large antherium [sic] – pink – with big calla lilies – I must get to painting soon.”

And though O’Keeffe invariably denied the erotic descriptions of her works, her gleeful blossoms stand present and correct with the painter’s trademark sensuousness, while green and luscious valleys disappear into a yonic ‘V’ that splices the horizon in two. What’s perhaps most pleasurable though, is seeing such a familiar practitioner entwine herself with a whole new landscape, as she concurred in the 1940 show’s introduction:

“If my painting is what I give back to the world for what the world gives to me, I may say that these paintings are what I have to give at present for what three months [sic] in Hawaii gave to me… One sees new things rapidly everywhere when everything seems new and different. It has to become a part of one’s world a part of what one has to speak with – one paints it slowly… Maybe the new place enlarges ones [sic] world a little. Maybe one takes one’s own world along and cannot see anything else.”

Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii is published by Prestel and available now.