Fine Arts Museum, Museum of New Mexico

Left: Plaza, Looking North, Santa Fe, February, 1997; Right: Detail of Front Facade, Fine Arts Museum, Santa Fe, 1997, photos by John Hazeltine

Santa Fe, NM



Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own


"Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own" opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on October 5, 2001, and remains open until January 6, 2002. Noted American historian and guest curator Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall began working on this exhibit about the same time she started her research about these captivating women. A book by the same name published by Yale University Press accompanies the exhibition. Places of Their Own is the culmination of five years of research by Udall. (left: Georgia O'Keeffe, Head with Broken Pot, 1943, oil on canas, 16 x 19 inches, Gift of the Stephanie Janssen Trust. © The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

These three women - Emily Carr (1871-1945, Canada), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954, Mexico) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986, United States) - have each achieved legendary, even iconic, stature in their native countries. Collectively, their work gives form to a mythos of North America, linking region and nationality to larger forces at work in Western consciousness.

"They had a common experience - the open skies, the great forests, the earth itself, and I started to see other connections between them, in their art and in their lives," says Udall, who teaches at the College of Santa Fe.

The exhibition comprises more than 60 paintings from 22 public and private collections across North America.

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Emily Carr first studied art in San Francisco in 1890, then later in London and Paris. Arguably Canada's best-known woman artist, Carr was a rugged individualist, eccentric, and considered scandalously unladylike by the repressive standards of Victorian gentility. O'Keeffe gained critical acclaim with her first exhibition, and the notoriety never entirely left her. Although major showings of her work were rare after Stieglitz died, no one forgot Georgia O'Keeffe. She was part of no "school" or style, and her work took an exceptionally personal path. After 1949 O'Keeffe lived permanently in New Mexico, the area with which she is most closely associated. (right: Emily Carr, Shoreline, 1936, oil on canvas, 68 x 111.5 cm, Gift of Mrs. H. P. dePencier. McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Frida Kahlo began to paint in 1925 while recovering from a streetcar accident that left her permanently disabled. She underwent more than 30 operations in the course of her life, and many of her approximately 200 paintings directly relate to her experiences with physical pain. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera.

Although the artists highlighted in Places of Their Own were only peripherally aware of each other's work, they touched on like themes and employed similar aesthetics. As well as taking their inspiration from nature, these artists shared a fascination with nationality. Udall said that they were forever exploring what it meant to belong to a particular nation.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe is one of only two venues in the United States (the other is the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.). In addition to attracting Georgia O'Keeffe's longtime admirers, the exhibit will also introduce visitors to the extraordinary paintings of Frida Kahlo and Emily Carr. Kahlo, revered by viewers of every ethnic background, promises to create significant new links to the Hispanic museum goers. Carr will be an equally significant attraction because this exhibit is the first to show her work at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own opens with a free reception from 5:30 - 7:30 pm on Friday, October 5, hosted by the Museum of New Mexico's Women's Board.


Following is an article written by Christopher Merrill which also appeared in the Museum of New Mexico Magazine El Palacio, Summer/Fall 2001, Vol. 196 No. 1:


The Women Who Rode Away: Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo

by Christopher Merrill

Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo: it is enough to pronounce the names of these artistic icons to begin to understand how they have shaped our vision of the New World. The mountains, forests, and totemic figures that Carr painted in British Columbia; O'Keeffe's flowers and bones; Kahlo's self-portraits -- these have conditioned our imaginative grasp of North America's natural abundance, aboriginal heart, and radically egalitarian impulses. Three women, three artists, three countries: they are the subject of Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall's engaging new study, Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, which explores the mythologies -- personal and political, aesthetic and cultural -- these artists created in their efforts to capture, in line and shape and color, what it felt like to be a woman living in the 20th century.

"The differences among these artists were at least as interesting as their similarities," Udall said in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Fe. The independent art historian and author of several books, including Contested Terrain: Myth and Meanings in Southwest Art, explained that this project grew out of an exhibition she had curated on landscape painting in the American Southwest and Canadian Northwest. The visual coincidences and experiences the artists shared in nature inspired her meditation on place and nationality, gender and the construction of identity. "Emily Carr set about to deliberately paint the experience of the Canadian wilderness," she continued. "And Georgia O'Keeffe was conscious of creating an original kind of American painting, an idiom untainted by European painting. As I began to work on them, Frida Kahlo emerged as a third North American focused on national expression."

Seven years in the making, Places of Their Own is a weave of criticism -- art, literary, and cultural -- biography, and psychology, which includes a substantial selection of the artists' paintings and writings. Udall examines their relationships to region, nationality, and the wider cultural forces at work in their time; their changing notions of the body and nature; the ways in which their sexual identities and spiritual concerns informed their work. She studies the public and private versions of their self-mythologies, the narratives of their journeys to become artists, which were always subject to revision.

She celebrates the range of their achievement and the contours of their thinking. Carr (1871-1945), O'Keeffe (1887-1986), and Kahlo (1907-1954), Udall writes, were "women artists in a transitional period." In Places of Their Own (Yale University Press, 2000) she gives a full account of the ways in which they anticipated and articulated the changing social contract between men and women.

"The secrets of female creativity are diverse," Udall explained on a free day between travels to Toronto and Denver. "And they depend upon an artist's ability to carve out a space in her life where she feels free to pursue certain subjects and to achieve a degree of autonomy."

No small task for women artists at the turn of the last century. Emily Carr, for example, was born into comfortable circumstances, in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1871, but her life was by no means easy. The eighth of nine children (five of whom survived into adulthood), she was orphaned as a teen-ager; and after spending her inheritance on studies in San Francisco, London and Paris she was left in financial straits. Estranged from her siblings, she gave art lessons, bred sheep dogs, made pottery, hooked rugs, and for fifteen years ran an apartment house, all at the expense of her painting. She traveled to native villages on Vancouver Island, documenting totem poles. She wrote books of stories and memoirs. She never married.

Canada's empty spaces fascinated her. "The stuff about is big," she wrote in her journal during a camping trip in 1936. "Its beauty consists of its wide sweeps and is difficult, for space is more difficult than objects. Objects are all well enough for studies, but what this place has to say is out in the open. It is like a vast sound that must be produced with very few notes and they must be very true or else it will be nothing but noise." What she found in this emptiness was a kind of visual music that still rings in the ears of young Canadian artists.

Georgia O'Keeffe was also taken with the vast, first in her childhood home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, then when she took a teaching job in the Texas rangelands, and finally in the hills and canyons and desert washes of Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she spent most of her adult life. Udall dwells less on O'Keeffe's biography -- her marriage to photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz; her successes in the New York art world; her transformation into a cultural icon than on her affinities with Carr and Kahlo. What she provides is a hemispheric context in which to measure her work, a different view of her place in the history of American art. It is instructive, as Udall illustrates, to consider some of the ways in which Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo paint, say, trees. Thus there are connections to make between O'Keeffe's magisterial Lawrence Tree, which came out of her reading of D. H. Lawrence's novella St. Mawr, and many drawings and paintings by Carr -- connections that enhance Udall's observations about the ways in which these artists inscribed their selves on their native lands:

For O'Keeffe, trees -- familiar, laden with meaning -- remained a favorite beginning point from which to discover or rediscover landscape. In her annual transplantation from New York to New Mexico, she might find a well-chosen tree to root her thoughts quickly in the southwestern soil. In the fall of 1948 her first painting was Gray Tree, Fall (private collection), which she described as "a dead tree surrounded by the autumn ... Very gentle and pleasant and high in key but it holds its place on the wall alone more than forty feet away." Dead but alive as a composition, the tree offered what O'Keeffe always wanted from a subject: it worked both as a painting and as her personal interpretation of nature.
Suffice it to say that Carr and Kahlo looked at their subjects in the same fashion.

Kahlo's trees, then, were more stylized, though no less fraught with symbolic value. For she transformed unimaginable physical pain -- a childhood bout of polio, a disfiguring streetcar accident from which she never recovered -- into some of the 20th century's mast memorable images. In Roots (1943), for example, the artist in an orange gown stretches out on an imaginary landscape of beige folds and brown crevices, with plant tendrils shooting forth from her chest cavity; from the large green leaves red-veined roots reach into the earth -- "a botanical dream of rootedness and fertility," Udall writes, which was not realized in Kahlo's life.

The daughter of an Austro-Hungarian Jew and a mestiza, she was blessed with a sense of destiny, postdating her birth by three years to 1910 in order to suggest that it coincided with the Mexican Revolution, which marked her spirit as indelibly as her infirmities, her marriage to the famous older painter, Diego Rivera, and her encounters with other artists, including O'Keeffe. Her inability to carry a child to term was a source of endless grief -- in her house she kept human fetuses preserved in bottles of formaldehyde, which she called her children -- rendered in haunting self-portraits, her favorite subject. Indeed "she never tired of pursuing 'face'," Udall writes --"that which most intimately characterized the individual."

In modern European American culture, we take for granted that the portrait painter will affix something of the sitter's individuality on canvas. In Nahua terms the creation of a face meant much more: by acquiring a face the individual could be helped to arrive at his or her own truth and to humanize his or her heart. The intensity of Kahlo's scores of self-portraits reflect that deeper mystery; through them Kahlo "assumed her face": and conversed with her heart.

That is, she fulfilled her destiny, establishing her identity as an artist.

And with her death, said one of her friends, "comes the end of the spectacle of a woman who was like a tree, small and weak, but so deeply rooted in the earth of life that death struggled for years to pull her out." What remains is the life she made on canvas.

"These artists all invented a mythology about themselves in order to pursue their art," said Udall. "I've tried to track those moments when they're stretching for something new or closing off something from the past. It's very much about process, and the paintings that come out of`this process sometimes hide and sometimes reveal."

She discerns in them "a hemispheric sensibility" at work -- a North-South axial orientation rather than the traditional East-West exchange of ideas and influences. They delved into the mythic underpinnings of the New World: Kahlo married pre-Columbian deities and Mexican folklore to avant-garde ideals; O'Keeffe discovered in kachina dolls what she called "a curious kind of live stillness"; Carr rendered the ogre goddess D'Sonoqua and totem mother of the First Nations culture in her paintings. Nor that they ignored their European patrimony; Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art provided O'Keeffe with direction at a pivotal moment in her apprenticeship; Kahlo read André Breton, along with Marx and Lenin; Carr was attracted to the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky. But Udall argues that their shared love for Walt Whitman's poetry was perhaps more instrumental to their artistic development, because he validated their perception that in the New World nature can be a source of ultimate meaning:

As I see my soul reflected in nature .... as I see through
a mist one with inexpressible completeness and beauty ....
see the bent head and arms folded over the breast .... the
female I see,
I see the bearer of the great fruit which is immortality ....
The good thereof is not tasted by roués, and never
can be.

Whitman was "the first white aboriginal," according to D. H. Lawrence, whose own search for original essences in the New World likewise inspired these artists to see their chosen places afresh. His sojourns in the American Southwest and Mexico, which prompted such works as The Plumed Serpent, St. Mawr, and one of his darkest stories, "The Woman Who Rode Away," the tale of a woman who leaves. These gave license to Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo to investigate in their paintings the collision between the ancient and the modern worlds. "The individual can but depart from the mass and try to cleanse himself," Lawrence wrote. "Retreat to the desert, and fight" -- -figurative advice these artists took.

"In the end," Udall writes, "individually and collectively, their work gives form to a mythos of North America, linking region and nationality to larger forces at work in Western consciousness." That mythos can be studied up close when an exhibition of works by Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo, developed by Udall to accompany Places of Their Own, travels to the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in October.


About the author

Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He is also the book review editor for El Palicio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico. He is the author of nonfiction and poetry books.


Exhibition information and images courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico. Essay reprinted with permission of Christopher Merrill.

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