Perhaps the word most associated with Georgia O’Keeffe is “vagina”, but it might as well be “cash”. “Jimson Weed / White Flower No. 1 ”was sold for $ 44.4 million in 2014 and holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a painting by a woman. A single white trumpet flower, so tightly attached to an emerald green tumult it almost looks like a periscope peeking out of the sea, now hangs in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. A companion piece, cheaper, less vaginal, belongs to the Indianapolis Museum of Modern Art, about twenty minutes from my birthplace, in the suburbs where fathers used to give their daughters rings of promise.
Throughout her career, O’Keeffe vehemently denied that her pictures had anything to do with female reproductive organs. This Freudian interpretation of her flowers did not come from her, but from Alfred Stieglitz, the powerful photographer and gallery owner who started O’Keeffe’s career and who later became her husband. His association of her flower portraits with vaginas was, in retrospect, a brilliant piece of marketing that in many ways led to the financial success of a job like Jimson Weed. It was also a brand that O’Keeffe found difficult to escape for the rest of her life. In an introduction to a catalog for a 1939 exhibition in New York, O’Keeffe bitterly addressed fans of her flower paintings: “You have all of your own associations with flowers attached to my flower, and you write about my flower as if I were thinking and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t. “
In this way, flowers became a kind of prison for O’Keeffe. Jimson Weeds and Iris overwhelmed and overshadowed her later depictions of deserts and red hills “because,” as she wrote in the same introduction, “a red hill has no special association for you like the flower … I believe it has all of that not much to do with painting. ”Certainly it seems to have something to do with goldfinch, but maybe more to do with the flowers themselves.
O’Keeffe wasn’t the first to complain about the expectations that flower painting placed on women. For centuries, excessive floral emphasis has put the fairer sex into over-identification. In 1883, a pugnacious male employee of The Massachusetts Plowman complained that women felt themselves endowed with an “innate understanding” of flowers. The climax of this overconsciousness, he complained, was the overrepresentation of women artists in local exhibitions (responsible for “more than half” of the flower pictures shown), even though there are actually “many who paint flowers believably and only a few and usually not women that they paint worthily. “One discovers in this indictment a note of jealousy, but also a real aesthetic dismay of a tenor, which is not incompatible with the views of the American flower queen:” Nevertheless – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we have it. “t time – and it takes time to see, to have a friend takes time,” wrote O’Keeffe in the 1939 catalog. Not everyone can see a flower “dignified”, let alone depict it.
And yet, for all the care O’Keeffe took – to see flowers for what they are, to be “surprised” to see them – flowers ended up screwing them on. Flowers do this a lot, and not just for women. After the Dutch and English penetration of Asia, the Caribbean and Africa, Renaissance Europe was full of bio-speculation. It is impossible to separate the rise of western floral art from colonialism. In the 17th century, the tulip, native to Turkey, became what the tomato was to Italy in the Netherlands, plus rampant financial speculation: for a short time, a single onion cost more than the average annual salary of the Dutchman. The tulip price bubble of 1637 is now a textbook for the first failure on the futures markets. The ensuing collapse wiped out the mortgages of the Dutch middle class. The following decade brought madness in hyacinths.
Perhaps the real beneficiaries of the tulip craze were the flower painters. It’s no surprise that the genre’s most successful ancestors are Dutch. Among them was Rachel Ruysch, whose delicate, lush bouquets of flowers populate urns and dark niches – a play of light and dark in the style of the time. As the daughter of a gardener and doctor, Ruysch’s career was boosted in a twist favorable to capitalist feminism by consumer demand for floral designs rendered in oil paint. The city of Amsterdam sent one of its contemporaries, the naturalist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, to Suriname to draw plants.
For years this was the status quo: men painted women, women painted flowers. As the center of painting shifted from the Netherlands to France, images of men of women ended up in the large salons, while images of women of flowers ended up in the Parisian-style foyers who frequented the salons only to be shocked by the reveal Gustave Courbets “The origin of the world.” It’s hard to hang a vagina in a respectable entryway unless it’s naturally disguised as a flower. But if women continued to paint bouquets disproportionately, it was not necessarily voluntary. As the French painter Marie Bracquemond, one of only three women featured in the Impressionist exhibitions, complained, women in 19th-century Paris art school were “only assigned the painting of flowers, fruits, still lifes, portraits and genres Scenes. “Meanwhile, formal painting training for men revolved around the anatomy of the nude – especially of naked women.
As much as she was annoyed by the suggestion, O’Keeffe’s flowers may have served as a subversive hack a few decades earlier, an anatomical study that women were banned from doing. There’s an undeniable symmetry between a painting like “Jimson Weed / White Flower No. 1 ”from 1932 and“ The Origin of the World ”from 1866. Courbet’s composition corresponds to O’Keeffe’s characteristic close-up cut. We see a chest, an upper body, a piece of buttocks like another fold in the sheet, and there, in the middle, the “origins” of the human being. When viewed side by side, it is difficult to see how the focus of the earlier work, the vagina, could be transferred to the focus of the later work, a flower and back again. Courbet anticipated the commotion his painting would cause and presumably refrained from painting her face, presumably wanting to spare his model any disgrace.
In a dream sequence in Toni Morrisons “Song of SolomonThe protagonist Milkman looks into the garden and finds his mother, who kneels in her tulip bed and plants onions in the frozen winter soil. She looks drained and desperate. He wonders why she chooses the garden in such miserable weather, when the tulips suddenly, fantastic, race into reality. They bloom, grow large and threaten his mother. You seem to be hitting them… ”He could only see their shoulders above them and their flapping arms high above those bobbing, snapping heads. They suffocated her and took her breath away with their soft, jagged lips. “When Milkman tells the dream to a friend, he wants to address a certain point – why garden, why do something, when you pursue the hobby as mechanically as your mother? – but his friend becomes distracted by hearing the story of Milkman’s own complacency. “Why didn’t you go to help her?” he says. Milkman is surprised. “But she liked it,” he protests. “She was having fun.”
Women belong in the garden. In the original Song of Solomon, the beloved is “the lily of the valley”, “a locked garden, my sister, my bride”. Later, when Milkman’s mother ponders the garden she was locked in all her life, a revelation comes: “Suddenly the world opened up to her like one of her imperial tulips, revealing her evil yellow stamp.” Because flowers are phallic too can, although this is not the association that resonates.
It was the Parisians and Victorians who formalized the West’s fascination with flowers and linked it inextricably with women. By the mid-nineteenth century, the main botanical garden in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes, had deep roots in the Fifth Arrondissement, and gardening had been established as particularly beneficial and edifying for les jeunes filles. In England, dictionaries on the “language of flowers” spread, in which definitions of erotic (red rose) to virgin (white lily) were spread, which informed the “talking bouquets” of the Victorian lovers. Charles Baudelaire addressed these traditional meanings in libertine verse – the French government banned six poems from the original version of “The bad flowers, “In 1857 – like Alexandre Dumas Fils, in”The lady of the camelliasThe femme fatale of the same name in this novel, Marguerite Gautier, lives as an escort and breaks hearts. She wears red flowers to signal that she is menstruating, knows she is not. Flowers and women were incorporated, or, in Derridian terms, “invaginated”, and men were outside this garden looking into it.
No Frenchman understood the danger of flowers – or of women, or of women and flowers for the modern man – as well Joris-Karl Huysmans in “À Rebours” (“Against nature”). The protagonist of the 1884 novel, Jean Floressas des Esseintes, is an esthete who has retired from the world to a private gallery of his own design – this is the famous book in which he encrusted a turtle with diamonds and kills it. Most of the novel, however, is devoted to horticulture: “After he had artificial flowers that mimicked real flowers, he now wanted real flowers that mimicked fake flowers.” Esseintes goes to his greenhouse, where he focuses on putrid tropical rarities, fragrant ones Specializes in orchids and carnivorous plants with flower-like tongues. After admiring his hothouse collection, he is visited by terrible dreams of a female flower monster trying to penetrate him in his sleep. He wakes up just in time; its hothouse blooms die off. Often presented as a book about decay and decadence, À Rebours is mainly about tyranny in a different sense. Des Esseintes wants to create the world in the image of humans (“real flowers that imitate fakes”), but nature has its limitations: it almost beheads him and deflowers him metaphorically. It mocks the limits of its artistic expression, just like O’Keeffe’s.
When my mother, a gardener, sees flowers, she is reminded of liveliness; Gardens help her deal with illness and death. When I see flowers, at least after a recent encounter with Huysmans, I see a control mechanism, a defense against savagery: the world as a garden, domesticated. DH Lawrence sees the great secret of sex: his novels, denounced as scandalous, are overgrown with pictures of flowers. All three of us, however, discover something in flowers that is at the limits of human understanding. Flowers are the ultimate symbols, one could say that the projections take up endlessly.