Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) was obsessive about her subjects. One of the most notable 20th century American modernists, she would paint the same things again and again—skulls, bones, landscapes or flowers—until she thought she could no longer get any closer to their essence. “I work on an idea for a long time," she once wrote. “It’s like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily."

Today, she’s best remembered for her huge, close-up flower paintings where petals fill the entire canvas. She enlarges them almost to the point of abstraction. In 2014, her Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 sold for a record-breaking $44.4 million (about Rs29 crore now) in a Sotheby’s auction, making it the highest price paid for a work by a female artist. A historical aside: O’Keeffe was also the first woman artist to have a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1946.

A forthcoming exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions Of Hawai’i, at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) will feature around 15 paintings inspired by her visit to Hawaii in 1939. One of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, Hawaii left a great impression on O’Keeffe and its flowers, plants and fog-shrouded valleys found their way on to her canvas.

Waterfall, No.1, Iao Valley, Maui’ (1939)
Waterfall, No.1, Iao Valley, Maui’ (1939)

Along with the exhibition, a flower show conceptualized by noted horticulturist Francisca Coelho, with set-pieces designed by Tony Award-winning Scott Pask, will evoke the Hawaiian gardens and landscapes that inspired O’Keeffe and represent the unique ecology of the islands. In March, The New York Times reported that out of the 1,280 endangered animals and plants recognized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 557 are in Hawaii. Conservationists have called it the “extinction capital of the world". The show will highlight the importance of plants in Hawaiian culture and the threat the native species face today.

Though it turned out to be a restorative trip and a significant moment in O’Keeffe’s aesthetic renewal, her Hawaiian trip had more worldly motives to begin with. It was the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (now Dole Food Co.) that had invited O’Keeffe to the islands to paint the fruit for its pineapple juice print advertisements. As it happened, she didn’t paint a single pineapple while she was there—turning in the two commissioned works only after her return to New York. But O’Keeffe immersed herself in the tropical landscape, which profoundly influenced her work. She made around 20 works inspired by the islands.

“By painting the tropical flowers she collected, from the minute she reached Honolulu, and then moving to the dramatic Maui coastline and the misty mountains of its canyons, she was able to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the islands’ numerous ecosystems," says Theresa Papanikolas, curator of the show, on email. “The paintings are a map of her experience of the islands."

‘Pineapple Bud’ (1939)
‘Pineapple Bud’ (1939)

In O’Keeffe’s hands, simple-looking flowers turn extraordinary. “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small," she wrote in an introduction to her show. “We haven’t time—and to see it takes time. So I said to myself I’ll paint what I see.... I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."

Freudian readings of her work have equated her flowers with female genitalia, but it was a suggestion she never tired of rejecting throughout her life. For seven decades, she practised a highly individual style that remained unaffected by the prevailing isms of the day, like Surrealism or Dadaism. Although O’Keeffe is usually associated with the stark landscapes of New Mexico, where she settled, the NYBG show will explore her lesser-known Hawaiian interlude.

In Oahu, Hawaii, when she first visited the pineapple fields, O’Keeffe described them thus: “all sharp and silvery, stretching for miles off to the beautiful irregular mountains.... I was astonished—it was so beautiful."

Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions Of Hawai’i will be on view at the New York Botanical Garden from 19 May-28 October. For details, visit Nybg.org.

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