Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate

We missed the opening of Tate Modern’s new extension because we were away on our super-swanky holiday …. of which more soon …. so I was really pleased to go to the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition last week and take in the new building at the same time.

It turns out that Tate Modern is Child Two’s least favourite art gallery in the world and, considering that she has been dragged around exhibitions all over the world (the lucky, lucky girl) that’s saying something. I must admit that after our visit, and having just tried to look up the name of the new extension on the website, she really has a point. The place is quite chaotic, which is all the more annoying as the spaces to traverse are vast and one soon becomes grumpy, even if one is a seasoned art lover (like me). Imagine how close to combustion a bored teenager gets. And, really? Making it hard to find the NAME of the extension on the brand new website? Come on, Tate Modern.

Anyway, the extension itself, whatever it’s called, is a rather wonderful building. The lower reaches are dark and mysterious, with unexpected concrete angles and not much natural light at all. It feels quite post apocalyptic. We eventually found an exhibition right at the bottom of the building. It looked like the leavings from a particularly dire car boot sale, but apparently it was all about primitive music making. Right.

Up at the higher levels of the building, things perked up. We could definitely see the merits of the balconies as venues for cocktail parties. Maybe this is this what it’s for, as there didn’t seem to be any actual art in evidence. The views from the top were breathtaking – the London skyline, post-Boris, is full of preposterous shapes and ginormous towers which are very sci-fi, if not also on the post apocalyptic side.

The extension itself is built very close to neighbouring buildings, which have been constructed with huge picture windows. Maybe they didn’t know the Tate extension was going up? The end result has been that you get a fabulous view right into these gorgeously fitted out apartments, all of which look as though they’re going to be the set of the new Night Manager film, or maybe even a James Bond. Then, quite ridiculously, we spotted signs on the Tate’s concrete posts saying, ‘please respect our neighbours’ privacy.’ I’m sorry? Did we decide to cop a bird’s eye view of someone else’s million-pound kitchen, Tate Modern, or did you, actually? How about you respecting your neighbours’ privacy? I can well imagine your neighbours are hopping mad, the price of their bijou pads melting away as the general public eyes up their cushion choices, but it’s hardly our fault. It’s yours.

Thank goodness the Tate can get something right. The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition was magnificent. The poor woman has long been lumped with a reputation for painting ladies’ sexy bits in disguise through her flower paintings, something she protested about vociferously at the time and which promptly made her abandon flowers for cubist abstracts, New York scenes and eventually skulls. Considering that it was actually her husband who put this interpretation on her work, and considering he then made lots of money out of it flogging her work, it’s not that surprising that she went right off him and headed off for the desert wastes of New Mexico to get some peace and quiet. Having moved on to the skulls, she was then said to be obsessed with death, which she also denied, saying that as there was nothing else in the desert, she was just painting what was to hand.

The Tate exhibition is exhaustive and covers her work from early days to the later huge canvases in the desert. The one I liked most explored O’Keeffe’s interest in synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is all about the collision of the senses – a taste making you ‘see’ something, a touch bringing to mind a taste. In her case, looking at certain colours evoked sounds, and she painted a small canvas with a bold curve of red and orange which, she said, for her echoed the lowing of cattle separated from their calves in Texas, where she lived at the time. I stood in front of the canvas, looking at the colours, and imagining the sound of the cows, and I swear I could both hear and see the cows, though there was nothing in front of me but red, green and black.

Having had that experience, I looked at the rest of the show in a different light. O’Keeffe to me seems to have been a much more experimental painter than she has been given credit for. Her lilies and irises may have provided a million bedrooms with mildly risque posters, but her real intent was to provoke a much more interesting reaction from her viewers, and I think this Tate show does a lot to point this out.

Definitely go and see the exhibition – and have a look at the upper floors of the new extension if you want some free interior decorating ideas.


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