We’re pretty damn lucky to have the beautiful “Poppy” by Georgia O’Keeffe on constant display at the MFA St. Pete, a painting once described by the artist’s lover Alfred Stieglitz as “that wild red picture.” It’s true, the painting buzzes with O’Keeffe’s uniquely vibrant, uninhibited aura — a presence that attracts many people in swarms to her work. Dawn Tripp has always admired this incredible painter, and became inspired to write the real life-inspired "historical fiction" Georgia to respond to the question, “Who is the woman behind these powerful works of art?”
Tripp works hard to create a well-rounded account of O’Keeffe’s life in a fairly chronological order, starting off when she was a 27-year-old schoolteacher living in Texas and had started snail-mail correspondence with soon-to-be flame Stieglitz, famed photographer and art promoter. The novel rides along O’Keeffe’s major artistic successes, from her giant leap of faith to move from out west to New York City to her first major exhibition at Anderson Galleries, while emphasizing the tumultuous nature of her relationship with Stieglitz, which burns white-hot despite his constant betrayal on both personal and professional levels.
Between visits to their summer residence at Lake George, where she did most of her painting, to her solo stints in New Mexico, Tripp emphasizes the artist’s passion and incredible work ethic. Because painting truly was her life, and she struggled to control how her work was perceived by a predominantly male art world — especially in light of Stieglitz’s intimate photographs of her that colored viewer’s perceptions of her work in a way that she didn’t appreciate.
Throughout the book, I mostly became pissed off at Stieglitz, the typical alpha male who will never admit being wrong, which made me reflect on the current struggles working women face as we strive for our professional goals — that sometimes come at a cost to our personal lives. Seeing a man struggle with having to deal with an intellectual and professional equal is incredibly relevant to many women today, as the concept of an “independent woman” can be far more attractive than the reality of it.
Getting down to the nitty gritty, you can’t speak about O’Keeffe’s history without including her burning sexuality. Unlike other reviewers’ comments about the intense passion of this book, I felt it hard to truly sense the intense love connection between the two artists, even considering Stieglitz’s initial sugarcoated romantic letters to O’Keeffe. Rife with sex scenes, I know the "novel" wasn’t aiming to be the next Fifty Shades of Gray, but the frequent moments of passion were cut short and quite blunt, and left me wondering why they were included, since they lingered between lackluster and semi-sexy. I can see where the writer struggled between acknowledging O’Keeffe’s sexuality without reducing her — and her work — to her reproductive prowess, but these parts seemed to fall flat.
By the end of the book, I felt uneasy about thinking, that’s it? The problem of merging fiction with real accounts is the predicament of the expectation of entertainment merged with the desire to learn facts. There’s no doubt that O’Keeffe faced many struggles in her lifetime, and the “success story” of a woman starting at the bottom and eventually surpassing all of her male peers is what any writer would want to focus on; but it keeps in line with popularizing he notion of the struggling American artist by glorifying this particular career.
Despite my skepticism regarding historical fiction, it’s not to say I didn’t learn about O’Keeffe, because I did, to an extent. It’s clear the author put many hours of research into her work, but many of the facts mingled with half-truths, making it impossible to know what the author was contributing to O’Keeffe’s narrative and what was really “real.”
I love a good piece of fiction (though I don’t own many), but my collection of art history books and biographies should tell where my biases and interests lay: in straight-up, dry information. If you’re looking to really learn about O’Keeffe’s life and art, I would go directly to the sources that Tripp herself went to, which are the artist's own words in letters, or writings by art historians and critics.
If you don’t know anything about O’Keeffe and are kinda-sorta interested, then this might make a good, shallow dive into the painter’s unique life before delving into the heavy books. Is it a good read to take to the beach or on vacation when you want to tune out annoying family members? Sure thing. But I won’t be abandoning my art history texts for fiction anytime soon.
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keeffe
Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2016