Georgia O’Keeffe is most well known for her larger than life paintings of various flowers. One of her most iconic pieces that I found to be of particular interest is Black Iris III, painted in 1926. The piece features an up close view of the heart of an iris and its surrounding petals. The iris flower, deriving its name from the Greek word for “rainbow”, comes in over 200 varieties in many different colors. In mythology, the Greek goddess Iris (which inspired the name) personified the rainbow and was a connection between heaven and Earth. When women were buried, purple irises were planted on their graves to call Iris to guide them in their journey to heaven. Throughout history, irises have come signify many things, including courage, faith, hope, and wisdom. Some irises also have other meanings depending on their color. The black iris depicted in O’Keeffe’s work (which in reality would be deep purple or blue) is sometimes used as a symbol of royalty (Green 1). The upper petals in O’Keeffe’s painting are a shade of pale lavender while the lower petals are a very deep purple, which appears as black. The center of the flower is a small black hole surrounded by a slightly lighter purple and opens into one of the lower petals which is drawn in slightly more detail than the others. It is possible to see one singular vein running from the heart of the flower outwards. There is not much space in the painting that is not used by the flower, but the existing backdrop is very neutral. The flower seems to blend into the background around the edges.
From just describing the foundations and background of this work, I can already start to connect it to several feminist themes and ideas. By simply examining it, it would be easy for viewers to see traces of female anatomy depicted by the flower. However, Georgia O’Keeffe did not necessarily paint with these ideas in mind. She has denied any erotic imagery in her work and has insisted that viewers have, “found things that never entered [her] mind” (Messinger 30).Since this work was created in the 1920s, it would be reasonable to believe that O’Keeffe was not seeking to be overtly sexual in her art. Although the 20s were a time where women were gaining more rights and independence, sexuality was still something that was not widely discussed. I, on the other hand, find it difficult to believe she had absolutely no feminist intentions when creating this work. Georgia O’Keeffe is thought by many to be at the head of the feminist art movement. She began her career in a time period where the art world was still mostly dominated by men who were critical of woman artists, yet still managed to build herself a successful career (The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Georgia O'Keeffe). She was an inspiration to many feminist artists to follow, including Judy Chicago, earning herself the final and highest place setting at Chicago’s The Dinner Party, completed in 1979 (The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Georgia O'Keeffe). As Frueh states in her article, “In the 1970s, feminist artists, wanting to reclaim the female body for women, asserted women’s ability to create their own aesthetic pleasures by representing women’s bodies… The resulting positive images of the female body are a critical part of feminist aesthetics of the 1970s” (Frueh 190). This movement of reclaiming women’s bodies explains why O’Keeffe’s work is interpreted heavily through feminist lenses.
So is O’Keeffe’s Black Iris III feminist art? I would say yes. If for no other reason, Black Iris III is feminist art because it was an introduction of a distinct new style of art by a woman in a time where men essentially controlled everything. However, it is easy to see themes such as sexuality and emotion reflected here, and perhaps even the issue of race. To start, examine her subject. As I described earlier, the purple (black) iris was directly related to women in mythological times and has come to represent courage, faith, hope, and wisdom, all of which are traits that were connected with women in the time period in which the work was created. Women were (and in some ways still are) fighting for equality, something that would require all of the above traits. The purple iris itself represents royalty in some places. While women in the 1920s were in no way royalty, this can be seen as underlying inspiration for women to strive for equality and the right to be treated as fully functioning members of society. Sexuality is also present in this painting. The flower has a clear connection to female anatomy, but it is subtly veiled. The petals surrounding the heart of the iris slightly mask the underlying subject, just like women’s sexuality in the 20s. Shown by the characteristic “flappers” of the era, sexuality was beginning to make its way into the culture but was still developing. The soft petals can be seen as a representation of emotion. They are flowing and soft, yet demand attention with their varying colors, and like I said before, they blend into the background around the edges. This shows how although women are definitely a presence in society, we are lost in the scenery sometimes. Lastly, this piece can represent race on some level. The light lavender of the upper petals contrasted with the dark purple of the lower petals and the heart mixed with the varying shades in between can be seen as women of all skin tones brought together into one entity. While all women are certainly not the same, we share the connection of being women. By incorporating all these shades into a flower whose namesake is the rainbow, O’Keeffe either knowingly or unknowingly depicted a key issue – the fact that all women are individuals and have specific needs, but are part of one larger entity based on gender.
I find this piece to particularly powerful and thought provoking. It is amazing how much can be said in one seemingly simple painting. Through analyzing this beautiful piece, it is clear to see it has several connections to feminism, some more prominent than others, but nevertheless, they are there. I certainly think the era in which this piece was created played a huge role and the piece itself speaks a lot about the conditions and culture of the time period. Overall, Black Iris III and some of O’Keeffe’s similar works strongly showcase feminist themes such as sexuality, emotion, and race.
By Halli J.
Frueh, Joanna. "The Body Through Women's Eyes." Challenging Modernism: The
Facets of Feminist Art. 190-207. PDF file.
Green, Samantha. "History and Meaning of Iris." ProFlowers. N.p., 2012. Web. 11 May
Messinger, Lisa Mintz, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001. Print."The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Georgia O'Keeffe." Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for
Feminist Art. Brooklyn Museum, 21 Mar. 2007. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/georgia_o_keeffe.php>.
"Georgia O'Keeffe: Black Iris (69.278.1)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000
<http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/69.278.1> (October 2006)