Caged Bird Flying Free

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Finding herself trapped in a narrative incompatible with her sensibilities, Georgia O’Keeffe faced the dilemma we all have in common—how to escape—how to shift from the old worldview to a new paradigm. She resisted attempts of others to label her work and classify it among the typologies extant in the art world. She successfully constructed her false-self survival strategy in her early life as we all must but ultimately could not accept the beliefs, attitudes and values that did not make sense to her and indeed were patently unhealthy for her.

Courageous enough to risk the mental and physical rigors of a paradigm shift—she embarked on the hero’s journey—doubly challenging for a woman in the early part of the 20th century. What follows is a brief chronicle of an amazing life of an extraordinary artist in search of Simple Reality.

As mystics, born imprisoned within P-B, forced to conform to the behavioral expectations of a tragically unconscious society, a few of us, very few, chafe at these restrictions and find a way to escape and return to the Garden of Eden, our natural environment. Georgia O’Keeffe was such a bird and her flight was glorious to behold. What traits do these mystical birds have that sets them free?

Self-Reliance

“I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me—shapes and ideas so near to me—so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.”  Such is the way that Self-reliance is born within those of us lucky enough and with courage enough to respond to our intuitive True self in the quiet recesses of the present moment.

Refusing to let the critics project meaning onto her work, especially a sexual symbolism that wasn’t there, she insisted that art was the pure expression of beauty for its own sake. “It was John Ruskin (1819-1900), the English theorist of Romanticism who described the tendency in art to anthropomorphize Nature, i.e. to attribute human characteristics to non-human phenomena, as a ‘pathetic fallacy.’”  Freud may have captivated those in O’Keeffe’s cultural mileau but she would have none of it.

Helpers on the Hero’s Journey

Perhaps O’Keeffe had been inspired by a fellow painter and mystic when she read his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Wassily Kandinsky, who like O’Keeffe was an extreme introvert, promoted a vision that must have seemed tailor-made for the young artist (then age 27) in the summer of 1914. “Kandinsky’s fundamental thesis, namely that color and form should no longer be indebted to outward appearances in nature, but rather to the feelings and ‘inner world’ of the artist, would have an enduring influence upon O’Keeffe’s attitude to [toward] painting.” 

O’Keeffe was plagued by doubts and both financial and health problems in her early life that could have derailed the career of a less determined personality. Alfred Stieglitz was her principle helper, seeing in her work the genius that he would do so much to nurture.

There were many others. “Like Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, she also began to explore the analogies between painting and music. For O’Keeffe, throughout her life, music reigned supreme amongst the arts. At Columbia Teacher’s College, she had watched with fascination as Alon Bement, following Dow’s principles, put on a piece of music and instructed his students to express in drawings the abstract sound patterns what they were hearing. Dow saw the abstract content of music as the perfect model for non-representational art, and O’Keeffe took up her teacher’s ideas in a number of her own canvases of 1919.”

Feeling: The Wings of the Mystic

Again, it is Kandinsky who understood the experience of the creative process in the present moment. “What is right artistically can only be attained through feeling. Even if overall construction can be arrived at purely by theory, nevertheless there remains something extra, which is the true spirit of creation, which can never be created or discovered through theory, but only suddenly inspired by feeling.” 

Trusting Intuition Rather Than the Intellect

“‘Intuition,’ wrote the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), ‘is a method of feeling one’s way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing, in order to locate  what is unique and inexpressible in it. If there is a way of grasping a reality in absolute rather than relative terms, of entering into it rather than taking up positions on it, of comprehending it without any translation or symbolism, then that way is metaphysics itself.’”  Bergson’s influence upon artists and writers at the turn of the century was pivotal and it is unlikely that O’Keeffe did not know about his ideas given that she was at the heart of the avant-garde community in New York. The early decades of the 20th century was the time when the center of the Western art world was shifting from Paris to New York.

O’Keeffe ultimately had the courage to trust her intuition, her “still small voice,” speaking from within. “By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—I some way feel that everyone is born with it clear but that with most of humanity it becomes blasted—(one way or another).”  Indeed we are all born with interior wisdom (clarity) but lose it as we flee the present moment afraid to trust our intuition, and then, afraid to embrace our suffering, we plunge deeper into the jungle of P-B. Georgia O’Keeffe refused to enter that stifling jungle and instead fled to the clean, refreshing air of the desert.

In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Alfred Barr, founding director of the museum said this about her work: “This tradition is more intuitive and emotional than intellectual; in its forms more organic or biomorphic than geometric; more curvilinear than rectilinear; more decorative than structural and more romantic than classical in its emphasis upon the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational.” 

Returning to the Garden of Contemplation

To coincide with her 90th birthday the film “Portrait of an Artist” by Perry Miller Adato was broadcast on television. “The film shows the artist living in perfect harmony with her surroundings and makes uniquely clear her oneness with the desert landscape.” 

“O’Keeffe’s special predilection for repeating certain patterns, forms and images and rephrasing them into ever new variations and combinations may be seen as a mark of her efforts to render visible the divine harmony which embraces and connects all beings.” 

In viewing her painting Sky Above Clouds IV, we are invited into the present moment as the self-created boundary that separates us from the perfection of Creation falls away. We are liberated to experience, if only momentarily, the freedom that Georgia O’Keeffe surely experienced, the heartfelt Garden of Eden beyond space and time, the sublime and eternal NOW.

Robert Hughes saw transcendentalism expressed in the “clarity” and “vastness” of certain American painters. “Its outstanding exponent was the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s magnified flowers, whose swooping forms of petal and stamen fill the entire surface of the canvas, have the amplitude of landscape itself. And her concern for images of light-filled, unbounded space, virtually abstract but still recognizable (in the division between sky and earth) as landscape, was as pantheistic as any of Kandinsky’s Improvisations.”  Pantheism and Oneness are virtually synonyms, hence we see how O’Keeffe’s worldview slowly grew into the sensibility of Simple Reality.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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