How does your gender define you and by extension your work? Whether we like to believe it or not, everyday we are influenced by the ways in which people choose to represent themselves. The reality that fashion and clothing are signifiers of who you are as a person is inescapable. And for women clothing becomes an even more powerful emblem of identity.
For Georgia O’Keeffe, the fact that she was a woman played an integral role in the reception of her work, despite her efforts to the contrary. Although she did find great success in the art world, societal definitions of femininity and sexuality continued the follow her throughout her life. Two recent exhibitions centered on O’Keeffe have explored her identity as an artist from two perspectives that ultimately inform how society interpreted her both as a woman and as an artist.
The Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibit, simply titled Georgia O’Keeffe took a straightforward approach to surveying her work. The retrospective explored O’Keeffe’s life from her upbringing in Wisconsin to her life in the thriving art scene of New York in the 1920s to her time at the now famous Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. In addition to her own paintings and other artwork the exhibit also including a selection of photographs by her contemporaries including Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and most notably her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz’s portraits and nudes of O’Keeffe were exhibited before any of her own work, and therefore had a direct influence on how the art world perceived her. Even before showing her own work, O’Keeffe was sexualized, both as a result of her womanhood and the revealing nature of Stieglitz’s images. This sexualized perception of O’Keeffe would follow her throughout her career, despite her many attempts to convince audiences that her work contained no sexual references.
The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern took a more nuanced approach, by exploring not only O’Keeffe’s work but also her wardrobe and her experiences in front of the camera. O’Keefe’s clothing style was utilitarian and minimalist, favoring mostly dark neutral colors with little to no embellishment. Although this is an aesthetic that today is quite popular and widespread across genders, during her time it made O’Keeffe a fashion trailblazer. This direct rejection of a traditional feminine aesthetic is also interesting to note in light of the constant sexualization she experienced in her work.
Perhaps O’Keeffe’s choice to dress in such a simplified manner was an attempt to subdue her own innate femininity. The reality being that both her work and her identity were sexualized simply because of the fact that she was a woman. By dressing in all black, and moving towards boxy shapes that hid her figure, O’Keeffe could take back a little bit of the power in the shaping of her own identity.
Which leads to an interesting paradox. Fashion has the unique ability to both empower women and render them powerless. As a fashion lover I’ve always enjoyed the power clothes have to transform. Every morning I wake up and I get to decide how I want to present myself to the world, what combinations are most flattering to me and which pieces make me feel most comfortable both in my own body and my own identity. But at the same time that fashion and clothing have given me the power to express myself, the fashion industry also attempts to control and influence standards of beauty, ultimately undermining self-worth. Perplexingly the industry is full of women and yet continues to be rife with undeniably anti-woman sentiments.
Both of these exhibits, featuring one of the most prominent female figures in art, came about at an interesting time in human history. Although they were surely in the works for many years prior, shining a spotlight on O’Keeffe is especially poignant at a time when we’ve been forced to confront how deeply ingrained sexism is in our world. And both, in their own ways, show how deeply intertwined identity and self-representation really are.