"Places of their Own: Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo," Feb. 8-May 12, 2002, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.
Georgia O'Keeffe is often considered the most important woman artist from the United States in the early 20th century. Frida Kahlo is held in similar esteem in Mexico, as is Emily Carr in Canada.
The thought-provoking traveling exhibition "Places of Their Own: Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo," now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., assembles work by all three and examines their professional identities and personal lives. With fresh material from public and not easily accessible public collections, this beautiful show is a must-see.
Each artist's sense of place and self is traced through her work as it relates to three areas: nature, culture and the construction of her personal mythos. Photos of the artists, their studios and videotapes of each provide added depth to the comparisons and contrasts explored via their works.
The cool and elusive O'Keeffe (1887-1986) hid her ambition from the public, leaving her public persona to mentor/husband Alfred Stieglitz for much of her life. She lived with him in New York City, spending summers upstate at Lake George. A watercolor nude from her early years in Texas is one indication of her concern for the body. In New York, she produced cityscapes, landscapes and especially sensual tree and flower paintings, like Oak Leaves, Pink and Gray (1929).
To escape increasing demands on her time, O'Keeffe established herself in New Mexico, where she immersed herself in the desert's open spaces. She painted the harsh yet majestic dunes, adobe churches and inscapes of bones and stones. Red Hills with the Perdenal (1936) is an excellent example of her ability to portray feelings by merging the bodily self with the real world.
Emily Carr (1871-1945), who unlike O'Keeffe and Kahlo never married, struggled for much of her life and received recognition only when it was long overdue. Early on she painted Indians of the Northwest Coast, as in the A Haida Village (ca. 1929). Having created a series of works recording the landscapes and culture of several native peoples, she proposed that the government buy them, but it refused.
For about 11 years, she was too poor to paint and became a landlady, raised dogs and made pottery. Although embittered by neglect, she managed to return to painting, recording her own spiritual ties with the mammoth trees and rain-soaked forests of the Northwest in paintings saturated with fear, awe and mystery.
One of the interesting connections between Carr and O'Keeffe is that both wrote about their oneness with trees. Certainly, trees are the most important subject for Carr and appear in most of her works even when the theme is something else, as in The Mountain (1933). Unless you have been to Canada, you may not be as familiar with this impressive artist's works as with those of O'Keeffe and Kahlo. If so, this exhibition will be a real eye-opener.
Frida Kahlo (1907-54), whose on-and-off-and-on-again marriage with Diego Rivera and her numerous affairs are legendary, sometimes gets lost as a painter. With a selection of pieces from private collections, "Places of Their Own" puts the spotlight back on the maker of oils like Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938). With Kahlo's adoption of the libidinous monkey as her totem (and real-life pet), she thumbed her nose at convention while maintaining her links to the pre-Columbian idea of humans having a link to certain animals. The lush vegetation, here as elsewhere, is a sensual backdrop, not the main focus of her work. With Kahlo, self-portraits and a few still-lifes and abstractions that mimic the human body are central.
Kahlo was more intrigued by politics than O'Keeffe or Carr. She and Rivera, ardent Communists, acted as host and hostess to Leon Trotsky and his wife. Kahlo had an affair with Trotsky and was even suspected of being involved with his assassination. Her relationship had at least one positive tangible affect, her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky from 1937 in which she appears in a fancy typically Mexican dress.
Her physical and mental suffering in the wake of childhood polio, a streetcar accident that resulted in numerous operations and several miscarriages, was the real subject of her work. Kahlo mixed in her longings for Diego Rivera, for a child and for strength from Mexico's pre-Columbian past. Many of her canvases seem to bleed or conjure up wombs, like her abstract Sol y Vida (Sun and Life) from 1947.
Kahlo's paintings catalog her despair but can also contain large measures of her caustic wit and ribald sense of humor. She lived in her parents' house longer than anywhere else but never had the settled home life she strove for. Kahlo was in and out of hospitals and lived in pain for several years before her early death.
The longest lived and by far the most successful during her lifetime of the three, O'Keeffe met the other two artists in person only briefly. She met Carr when Carr made a trip to New York. She met Kahlo when she passed through New York in 1931, and again in New York in 1938. Kahlo phoned and wrote to O'Keeffe when O'Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown in 1932. When O'Keeffe went to Mexico in 1951, she visited the bedridden Kahlo.
"Places of Their Own" plots the spiritual and psychological relationships and the differences between the three women artists, never overstating the one or the other. If you cannot get to D.C. to view the 62 works of "Places of Their Own," consider picking up the catalogue. It's a real gem. Invitingly written with lots of illustrations, it condenses reams of biographical and analytical information, while never loosing sight of the work. It is by the exhibition curator, independent scholar Sharyn Udall of Santa Fe, N.M.
"Place of Their Own: Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frieda Kahlo" was organized and circulated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Toronto, Ontario. The show has been seen at the McMichael Art Collection and the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, and travels to the Vancouver Art Gallery after leaving D.C.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.