Georgia O’Keeffe at the Museo della Fondazione Roma

Summer Days ©Whitney Museum of American Art
Last year's Edward Hopper retrospective at the Museo della Fondazione Roma (formerly Museo del Corso) was one of the city's most enjoyable shows of 2010. This year the consistently excellent gallery on Via del Corso has brought another absolute icon of twentieth century American art to Rome – Georgia O’Keeffe. In what is the first major retrospective ever of this hugely important and influential artist to be held in Italy, the Fondazione Roma has worked in collaboration with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to present over 60 works, not only from the Santa Fe collection, but also loaned from major galleries and private collections around the world, as well as personal objects and numerous photographs.

The Museo della Fondazione Roma has distinguished itself over recent years through its curatorial choices and in the creative, even theatrical way in which works are hung. A retrospective at Palazzo Cipolla is never an ordinary art show – it is a fully interactive wander through an artist's life which seeks to fully contextualize the artist's oeuvre and help us better understand how the work came to be made.

Blue Hill No. II 
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
The Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition is no exception – turn the corner just beyond the ticket office and you will find yourself in an elaborate reconstruction of Fifth Avenue in New York in the early 1900s, the city where the young O'Keeffe started out in the early years of her career, first as a student of Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University, and then as the collaborator and wife of the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was one of the first people to champion her strikingly original early abstract charcoal drawings and watercolours, exhibiting them at his 291 Gallery in New York, and it is these works - including the gorgeous Blue Hill No. II - which open the show. The hanging of a black and white photograph of the Moon from the Equivalents series by Stieglitz alongside O'Keeffe's 1916 watercolor Evening Star No. VI is particularly effective, as is a photographic nude of O'Keeffe by Stieglitz flanked either side by two Nude self portrait watercolours (Nude Series VII and Nude Series VIII) in this first section.

The influence of the architectural shapes and skyline of New York on both artists is also explored in the juxtaposition of several Stieglitz's New York Street photographs with O'Keeffe's stunning New York Street with Moon from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Madrid.

Jack in the Pulpit No.IV
 © National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC
As hugely important as Stieglitz was to O'Keeffe, however, his erotic photographs of the painter would serve to negatively influence critics, who to the painter's horror, would subsequently apply Freudian sexual interpretations to her own abstract work and, as a response, see her turn towards more realistic, natural forms. Georgia O'Keeffe, of course, took those natural subjects such as fruit and flowers - alligator pears, petunias, lillies and jimson weeds – and quite simply revolutionised the genre, creating some of the most famous and influential flower paintings ever made, with her close up and enlarged blooms painted as if seen through a macro lens.

No O'Keeffe show would be complete without these flower paintings and there are plenty here to keep her fans happy – Jack in the Pulpit No.IV from 1930 is particularly fine – but perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this show is its emphasis on landscape and the enormous impact that the open spaces and sky, dazzling colours and unusual rock formations of New Mexico and the appropriately named Painted Desert had on the artist's life and work from 1929 onwards. I would have happily spent all afternoon staring at the 1940 landscape Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs) and the exquisite beauty of her signature animal bone paintings – for O'Keeffe a symbol of the beauty of the desert, not death as was once again wrongly assumed by critics at the time - such as the 1936 Summer Days from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs)
 © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
With the later rooms transformed into the style of the adobe house that would be her home in Ghost Ranch, as well as a reconstruction of her studio at her Abiquiu home, and two short but highly informative educational videos playing on a loop, the curators have almost pulled off the impossible and brought O'Keeffe's beloved desert to Rome. Short of flying to Sante Fe to visit the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in person, this exhibition really is the next best thing, bringing the visitor closer to the artist, with a show that is both intimate and awe inspiring at the same time.


Georgia O'Keeffe is curated by Barbara Buhler Lynes and continues at the Museo della Fondazione Roma, Palazzo Cipolla (Via del Corso, 320 ) until 20th January 2012.

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