Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii at the New York Botanical Garden
Art lovers know Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the high desert of the Southwest, but fewer are aware perhaps of her “Hawaii period.” In 1939, courtesy of the Dole Pineapple Company, the artist spent nearly 10 weeks in Hilo, Kaua’i, Hana, Oahu, and elsewhere on the islands.
Seventeen of the exuberant paintings that came out of her travels are exhibited in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery at the New York Botanical Garden, through October 28. At least as voluptuous is the profusion of Hawaiian flora on view in the magnificent Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, also part of the NYBG’s dazzling exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii.
Some plants are native; many others were introduced by settlers, starting with the Polynesians who traveled to Hawaii by voyaging canoe 1,500 years ago. All lend themselves to close-ups.
Nature was a primary subject and a constant source of inspiration to O’Keeffe. Rapturous use of color is also a hallmark of her work, so it’s no surprise that in her first letter* to her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe immediately set herself to describing the landscape and identifying the Hawaiian palette.
“How do you do! Here I am in Honolulu as you see—on the Richards lawn out toward the ocean,” she wrote Stieglitz hours after her arrival. “The shade is sort of thick and light at the same time—the sun pale—a long dreamy blue sort of a mountain raising up out of the ocean.”
In later letters, O’Keeffe continued to describe in detail what she saw: “It was a dry-looking tree with a bright red feathery flower and foliage from almost black to pale green grey—sometimes a few new red leaves and always many little pale grayish green buds.”
She didn’t always note or seem to know the names of what she was seeing, and her spelling of those she did know could be characteristically idiosyncratic (you’ll see), but she conveys her impressions vividly. What comes through is a feeling of being a stranger in paradise. Writing to Stieglitz of “a wonderful flower” she was painting, “You will think I made it up—You will not believe it is true. . .”
Her excitement, equal parts wonder and disbelief, shines out of her paintings in the NYBG art gallery. I couldn’t decide which of the three versions of a waterfall in ‘Iao Valley (a little mist, more mist, a lot of mist) I liked best–I wonder if she could? Knowing her renderings of such garden-variety flowers as hollyhocks and iris, I was curious to see how she responded to more exotic blooms. Her painting of a little ole petunia wrought large can make you see it for the first time. In this show, a white bird of paradise seems nearly as surreal as the floating lure in “Fishhook From Hawaii — No. 1,” also on display, and in some ways as skeletal as the animal skull suspended over New Mexican hills in, say, “From the Faraway, Nearby.”
Others—”Pink Ornamental Banana,” for example—have an almost heroic character, standing tall against a background of blue sky. Still others, “Cup of Silver Ginger” and “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” are just sensuous as all get-out. Each artwork brings the faraway nearby.
In the conservatory, you get to cosy up to the plants that O’Keeffe struggled to capture in words and paint. While some of these hothouse Hawaiians are more familiar than they would have been in 1939 (now you can buy orchids at Stop & Shop, after all), so many in one place is eye-popping.
Crotons, palmettos, brugmansia, bromeliads, birds of paradise, ferns, pitcher plants, canoe plants, palms, orchids, papayas, and many more plants form layers of greenery (and maroonery, purplery, and pinkery) that evoke Hawaii’s lush, dense rain forests.
In gallery after gallery of the conservatory, the shapes, colors, and textures of the specimens on display remind you that the plant world has evolved myriad, brilliant approaches to survival, some sensational, some sensationally odd.
The 51-year-old O’Keeffe pursued new sensations at full tilt: looking at coral from a glass-bottomed boat, touring pineapple fields, avoiding steam vents at the Kilauea volcano. (Did you know that another term for steam vents is fumarole? Isn’t that a great word?)
She went hiking through “all sorts of jungle—up and down very steep hills—along the sea—past water falls and deep gorges,” waded in her “peticote” on an empty beach, and ate a “cocoanut” fresh from a tree for lunch. She wrote Stieglitz about another meal, “You will be disgusted when I tell you that I ate raw fish for lunch at a little Japanese place. It is a special fish that they eat raw and it doesn’t even taste like fish.” This was also long before Stop & Shop sold takeout sushi.
Judging from her letters, O’Keeffe was by turns captivated and disoriented by more than a taste of sushi. She variously described Hawaii’s hallucinatory natural beauty as fantastic, quite perfect, spectacular, and just too beautiful, and in the next breath as startling, unbelievable, strange, sort of terrifying, like a dream, like a fairy story. She thought she might “never experience any thing like it again” and described herself as “feeling quite apart from the place but I like what I see.”
“I am at a place that everybody says is lovely,” she wrote several weeks into her visit (telling, that phrase “everybody says”), “a very comfortable hotel right on the ocean at the end of the earth it seems to me and I feel a bit as if I fell out of the sky to get here.”
And: “The country is very paintable but I don’t get hold of a new thing so quickly—It doesn’t happen in a minute.”
Making sense of a new place and savoring that sense of unfamiliarity; making it yours, even if it’s only in a niche of your memory… when we travel, we try to do these things, and the results may be elation or frustration. For O’Keeffe, who loved traveling, there was the added pressure to translate her experience into art for her own sake and for her commercial patron. So she applied herself to painting (and sketching and taking “snaps,” as she called her photographs) during her sojourn and more painting after her return.
She offered Dole a couple of paintings, one of a papaya, which it declined (papayas were a competitor’s product), and one of a Crab’s Claw Ginger, which it accepted and used in ads. The jaunty ginger portrait is in the NYBG show and the brilliant pinwheel “Pineapple Bud,” the other painting that went to Dole.
Words she used to describe what she saw, fantastic, startling, quite perfect, surface in your mind as you look at these works. They also serve as a running commentary on the plants in the conservatory.
Which is better: nature or art? The question grows naturally out of a show that pairs the two. But why choose? Why not let your eyes linger on a real pineapple bud or a ginger flower—they are extraordinary things—and study what an artist made of it? Give yourself over to both heart and soul.
As O’Keeffe, in her inimitable fierce way, put it: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
*O’Keeffe’s letters are fun to read: here is a link to Jennifer Saville’s commentary on and compilation of them. Sigourney Weaver gives voice to them in the film Off in the Faraway Somewhere: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Letters from Hawaii, shown in the Britton Rotunda of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library as part of the exhibition.
Further reading: Laurie Lisle’s Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe is a good, solid biography, written when O’Keeffe was still alive.
Ways to go: To get to and from New York, I took Amtrak’s Vermonter, which stops in the town I live in. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From Grand Central, it’s a mere 20-minute ride via Metro North to the station across the street from the NYBG. I recently learned that Metro North has getaway packages that offer discounts on fares and admissions to a raft of NYC attractions, including, of course, the NYBG.