It just so happens that I had a very clear idea of what to expect from these exhibitions and I was proven wrong twice in the space of an afternoon.
In a sort of misplaced and rather contemptible botanical association of mine, I decided to combine a visit to ‘Georgia O’Keeffe‘ at Tate Modern with ‘Dorothea Tanning: Flower Paintings‘ at the Alison Jacques Gallery. Had there been a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe in London, I would have added it to the marathon just to annoy the art purists out there.
Despite spending a great deal of energy and time to rebut the almost universal sexual interpretations of her flower paintings, Georgia O’Keeffe ultimately failed to make a case for a less Freudian and broader appreciation of what is, de facto, her most recurrent subject.
Tate Modern’s mammoth display of her work seems to rekindle her efforts by showing very few of her iconic flowers and a great deal of her other works in the most comprehensive retrospective of her career to date. It is an extensive and possibly exhaustive collection of photographs, paintings, sketches and written words. Although it is mostly successful in weaving common threads through six decades of works by showing the different American landscapes through her synesthetic sensibility and vision, the overwhelming feeling is one of disconnection and redundancy.
The sheer number of exhibits makes it difficult to focus and appreciate them. Like a Lucullan banquet, though of a visual kind, it leaves you tired, drowsy, bloated and generally unsatisfied.
It is not difficult to imagine why, after the £260m addition of Switch House, Tate Modern wanted a blockbuster. And at £19 a ticket, they are certainly cashing in.
After remembering a set of stretched Lefebvre-Foinet canvases purchased in Paris twenty years earlier and never used, Dorothea Tanning painted a set of twelve imaginary flowers between June 1997 and April 1998. She was 87 when the series was completed in her studio in New York.
Combining her passion for poetry, painting and life, these canvases are not just an exacting homage to nature, but her personal foray into the tradition of attributing language to flowers.
Images of the preliminary sketches, reproductions of the paintings and corresponding poems, including lines from her friend and mentor James Merrill, were collected in ’Another Language of Flowers’, published in 1998.
The six works on display were still in the artist’s possession at the time of her death in 2012. The list of gibberish latin names with their improbable English translations made me laugh; a reminder that Dorothea Tanning’s friends and poets first named the flowers and then composed verses inspired by them.
The uncomplicated and uncluttered exhibition at the Alison Jacques Gallery Phenq review achieves what Tate Modern seems to have missed on this occasion: allowing visitors to lose themselves in the paintings without unnecessary distractions.
‘Georgia O’Keeffe’ is at Tate Modern until 30/10/2016.
Dorothea Tanning: Flower Paintings’ is at the Alison Jacques Gallery until 01/10/2016.