by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Georgia O’Keeffe, a 2009 biopic of the famous American artist (billed in the closing credits as the most commercially successful woman fine artist of all time, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Frida Kahlo — who’s also been the subject of a biopic — is catching up) and one of the most fascinating painters of the 20th century if only because her art was so uniquely her own and had almost nothing to do with the great artistic debates of the time — representation vs. abstraction, perspective vs. cubism, expressionism vs. Pop — she just sat in her redoubt in New Mexico and painted away, marvelous images that blurred the distinction between realism and abstraction and reflected a uniquely female perspective — well before Judy Chicago, O’Keeffe managed to work in the vagina as an ongoing subject matter, painting flowers as representations of the female sex principle (as Robert Mapplethorpe, decades later, would turn them into representations of the male — remember, after all, that a flower is nothing more or less than the sex organ of a plant) and drawing on the desert landscape as both raw material and the foundation of her aesthetic.
The only problem with O’Keeffe’s life is that, in terms of what’s usually considered movie material, it wasn’t all that interesting — unlike Van Gogh, Gauguin, Goya, Kahlo or Pollock, she didn’t live a stormy, tempestuous life that would make good fodder for movie drama, so the filmmakers, director Bob Balaban and writer Michael Cristofer, decided to focus their movie on her really peculiar marriage to photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz and cast two fine old-pro actors, Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, as the couple. The film starts in 1916 when O’Keeffe arrives in New York and sees that Stieglitz is exhibiting her drawings in his gallery without her permission (according to the Wikipedia page on O’Keeffe, her friend Anita Pollitzer had sent the drawings to Stieglitz without O’Keeffe’s knowledge); she decides to stay in New York (then, as now, American Art Central) and Stieglitz offers her space in his second apartment with the hint that he’ll let her live there rent-free if she accommodates herself to him sexually — and after some misgivings she agrees to do so even though she knows he’s married to someone else.
Mrs. Stieglitz bursts in on them unexpectedly and decides to leave her husband — thereby precipitating a financial crisis in Stieglitz’ life (he’d been relying on his wife’s fortune for seed capital) and ultimately leading him to marry O’Keeffe, then to infuriate her (temporarily) when he exhibits the nude photos he took of her which she thought would remain private between the two of them. But that doesn’t stop him from fooling around: just as his first wife caught him with her, so she catches him with another woman (a married one he’s having an affair with). Instead of leaving him over it, though, she decides to stay married but to separate, accepting the invitation of much-married and much-divorced arts patron Mabel Dodge Stern Luhan (Tyne Daly) to move to Taos, New Mexico, where O’Keeffe finds her perfect work atmosphere as well as her ideal subject matter in the desert landscape and its accoutrements, including the famous skeletal cattle heads that were among her most (commercially) successful works. Cristofer’s script tends to buy into the notion that artists have a right to live differently from the social norms and that everyone else ought to accept them as they are and not challenge them to live according to conservative “moral” codes.
Eventually O’Keeffe has a nervous breakdown (according to Wikipedia, it had to do with a commission for a mural at Radio City Music Hall that had fallen behind schedule, but the film attributes it to her marital troubles with Stieglitz) and that drives her to return to New Mexico, where she almost never left for the duration of her long life (she died in 1986, age 98, and despite failing eyesight she continued to paint until a few months before the end). The film isn’t very exciting — it was made as a TV-movie for Lifetime and must have sat rather oddly with their more normal fare — but it’s nice to be reminded what great actors Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons still are even though by now they’re too old to be comfortably castable, and director Balaban and cinematographer Paul Elliott occasionally catch the appearance of O’Keeffe’s painting style in their images but all too often return to the immediate-past-is-brown clichés we’ve come to know and loathe — there are too many ensemble shots of actors seated at tables under candle- or lamplight and everything is brown: the faces, the walls, the overall glow which I presume is meant to represent the limited illumination from these light sources but which has become an all too common, and all too annoying, mannerism in modern movie after modern movie. Still, Georgia O’Keeffe is a compelling movie, a rather gentle one but still interesting — much, in that regard, like O’Keeffe’s art.