The Influence of Photography and Surrealism on Georgia O'Keeffe

Sweet Georgia!
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Georgia O'Keeffe, born Nov. 15, 1887, came to maturity during the early 20th century when there was great excitement and change going on in America. There were advances in technology and movement away from classical traditions in art. New York City was developing into a thriving metropolis with skyscrapers and automobiles. Photography, first invented in the mid-1800s, became more accessible to the public in the 1880s with the invention of the Kodak camera and developed into an art form, called Pictorialism, when Alfred Stieglitz, famed photographer, gallery owner, and promoter of artists, held the Photo-Secession show in 1902. Stieglitz, who also promoted O'Keeffe, was interested in the manipulation of photographs to express personal vision and in having photography seen as a legitimate art form. Surrounded by photographers seeking to express themselves with this exciting new medium, O'Keeffe absorbed their energy and influence.

Influence of Photography

O'Keeffe caused quite a stir in the art world when, in 1925, Stieglitz exhibited her large-scale paintings of flowers close-up, magnified, and cropped. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz formed a great partnership, including marriage, and each inspired the other as artists throughout their lives. From Stieglitz and some of the other photographers whose work he promoted, such as Paul Strand and Edward Steichen, O'Keeffe learned the technique of cropping and filling the frame of the camera, or canvas, with your subject. 

According to about O'Keeffe:

"O'Keeffe incorporated the techniques of other artists and was especially influenced by Paul Strand's use of cropping in his photograph; she was one of the first artists to adapt the method to painting by rendering close-ups of uniquely American objects that were highly detailed yet abstract."

Influence of Surrealism

The turn of the century also brought changes to the traditional painting style. Surrealism, and its emphasis on the human psyche, developed in Europe in the mid-1920s and many Surrealist paintings were shown in New York galleries by the 1930s. O'Keeffe, herself, was friends with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who some consider a Surrealist, famous for her tortured self-portraits after being devastatingly injured in a bus accident. (More on Frida Kahlo.) Some of O'Keeffe's paintings from the American Southwest during that time, although not intentionally Surreal, showed signs of that influence, with paintings such as Summer Days, 1936 that included a skull and flowers floating in the sky. In Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, a comprehensive biography of O'Keeffe, author Hunter Drohojowska-Philp writes:

"O'Keeffe had stated her interest in trying to achieve a dreamlike quality in her own art, and New Mexico, abounding as it did in Hispanic and Indian mysticism and empty desert littered with animal skeletons, provided a surreal landscape. Many of her paintings from the thirties and forties have a surreal appearance, though the artist never entertained the restrictive theories proposed in 1925 by arch-Surrealist Andre Breton."

Georgia O'Keeffe was well-informed and aware of what was happening in the art world around her, and although being influenced by and absorbing some of it, she remained true to herself and her artistic vision throughout her entire life, thereby creating art that has transcended time.