Beyond Flowers

Exhibitions, Sketchbook, Visits, Visual Research

Georgia O’Keeffe: The Insightful Exhibition

Until the end of October, Tate Modern is home to the wondrous world of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work I’ve loved since my obsession with nature began whilst still at school. Very predictably, I knew of her as many did, by her abstract paintings of flowers that were often linked to sexual interpretations, so I was very surprised by the exhibition and the exploration that exceeded this. So much so, I went twice.


Photo: ‘Oriental Poppies’, 1927 – Georgia O’Keeffe (Source:


Work on display

Simply displayed to enhance the skill and detail in her paintings, Georgia O’Keeffe’s work was curated in an orderly fashion depicting a strong sense of how she progressed during her career. It was a thorough exhibition spanning a wide selection of her works, from paintings of flowers and landscapes to the Southwest and skyscapes.

What I found to be insightful was that the exhibition very much highlighted the creative and personal relationship O’Keeffe had with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who later became her husband, and the impact it had on her work.


Map of the exhibition and the room guide descriptions to help visitors understand the chronology of curated works.


Eye opening information

There were so many things I enjoyed about this exhibition. First and foremost it was the variety of work I saw. O’Keeffe was a great painter and it was compelling to see how her technique translated between subject matter. Her cityscapes for example used dark colours cleverly to depict New York at night yet the silhouetted figures dotted with luminous oranges, yellows and whites added life to the city, so effective if looking closely you could almost expect to see the painting itself come alive.

The many charcoal drawings on display had to have been one of my favourite unexpected delights of the exhibition. We know O’Keeffe for her paintings but getting to see preliminary charcoal sketches which experimented with mark making and motion, in turn creating three dimensional forms was something I paid close attention to. If I had to pick one piece of work most memorable to me, it was definitely ‘Rams Horn 1’ because of the way she managed to capture the characteristics of the object, building swift marks with the charcoal in order to create shadows and dimension. Although I also enjoyed seeing how minimal some of her sketches were and how they were sometimes based on line and shapes only.


Sketches of her animal based charcoal work. ‘Rams Horn 1’ illustrated on the right. ‘Untitled Skull’ illustrated on the left.


Sketches of O’Keeffe’s minimal charcoal drawings.

However, considering my love for nature and knowing of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings prior to the exhibition, naturally it was captivating to see these in person. Her ingenious manipulation of paint to create pastel tones and shadows that demonstrate the depth of the flowers she observed, and being able to get really close up to see how the colours blended was definitely a highlight of the visit. I looked at them remembering how I first researched my interest in O’Keeffe’s flowers.

Although, at one point, I turned to read the introduction on the wall and read a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe herself, commenting on her flowers:

“Nobody sees a flower- it is so small- we haven’t time- and to see takes time… So I said to myself- I’ll paint what I see- what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it… and when you took the time… you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower- and I don’t.”

I loved this quote because it reminded me of how I enjoy working from nature and observation, looking for things that go unnoticed. Small things. However being an illustrator, it is important to remember that your work has to communicate well, and depending on how successful that is done, not everyone will see what I see. They will generate their own responses to my work.


Oriental Poppies, 1927 (left), Kachinas (right)


Colour swatches from my favourite works on display as the exhibition was too busy to be able to sit and draw adequately.

Final Review

There is definitely so much I will take away  from the exhibition, most notably that Georgia O’Keeffe is so much more than the flowers. Not only did I get a sense of an empowering woman, I was encouraged to think about myself and my practice. Not just how the techniques and visual language I saw can inform my own illustrations in the future but how my work is perceived and making sure I communicate what I aim to.


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