My favourite piece by Georgia O'Keeffe turned out to be one of the first works I saw in the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, Mum immediately said, 'I think this is it.' She meant, dolefully, that we had scurried across London, reliving the same bus journey twice, hopped up and down the Tate Modern's escalators twice (we forgot to pick up our tickets at the booth the first time), only to find the O'Keeffe retrospective was contained in a single room. Happily, Mum couldn't have been more wrong. We were rabbits in a warren, the two of us, along with the hundreds of other Londoners who had also decided that the last days of O'Keeffe were not to be missed.
O'Keeffe began in 1916 with charcoal and wash on paper, determined not to 'use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white'. But while she was painting lines, curves, shells, abstraction, her husband Alfred Stieglitz was busy photographing her hands, breasts, limbs, so that when colour finally exploded onto her canvas, he was ready to have it labelled erotica.
This painting, titled 'Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow' is a perfect example of O'Keeffe naming her painting abstract, but the viewer being directed to think otherwise. With her flower series, this labelling became more pronounced. There is something voluptuous, sensual and anatomically vivid about certain flowers, the tongues of canna lilies, blowsy skirts of opening petals, but the painter faithfully representing them may be doing just that. These 'Oriental Poppies', I think, look just as they should.
O'Keeffe addressed her viewers: 'you hung all your associations with flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as if I think and see what you think and see of the flowers - and I don't.' Meanwhile, Salvador Dali painted a rose and was dubbed king of surrealism. When O'Keeffe painted bones and skulls, and meant bones and skulls, they called it surrealism. 'The bones do not symbolise death to me,' O'Keeffe made clear. 'They are very lively.'
Pretty too, I think...
The biggest surprise for most people with the range displayed at the Tate Modern was probably O'Keeffe's architectural paintings.
She was homey, and settled into her places and spaces with the kind of certainty bones have when they settle into earth. She painted doorways over and over again, and explored the adobe dwellings of Taos Pueblo - here Mum found her favourite painting among the longest continually inhabited dwellings on earth.
On the bus to Georgia, I mentioned to Mum that someday I wanted to paint my own version of reality as I see it through my highly compromised vision. It would look something like an impressionist's painting, I told her, with bits missing or smudged out. A few hours later, I stood in front of Cottonwoods, 1952.
There was nothing O'Keeffe did not attempt - from my own myopic world to worlds of synaesthesia and chromothesia - translating sounds such as cattle lowing and music, into something for the eye. In the last years of her life, there were clouds, vast expanses of blue, calling to mind Joni Mitchell's lyrics, 'It's clouds illusions I recall'...