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Errr... are these paintings of vaginas?

Eddy Frankel
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986, 'White Iris', 1930
© 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, and the new show of her work at Tate Modern that just opened proves just how good she was. But one question has dogged her work for decades: are her flower paintings of vaginas? 

The easy answer is no. The first person to describe O’Keeffe’s abstracts and flower paintings as ladybits was her own husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. His photographs of O’Keeffe, including a series of nudes, appear in this exhibition. He encouraged her to read Sigmund Freud and see the erotic symbolism in her work.

Then, feminist artists in the 1970s like Judy Chicago saw in O’Keeffe’s work a radical embracing of the female form that totally fit in with their view of gender politics. They felt like O’Keeffe was one of them, and took the whole vagina thing and ran with it.

But throughout her 60-year career, O’Keeffe strenuously and repeatedly denied that her work had anything to do with the erotic. She felt that people were just reading their own obsessions into the work. For her, these were works of nature and abstraction, pure and simple.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986, 'Music – Pink and Blue No. 1', 1918
© 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Not that that’s stopped people from talking about it. Back in 2014, Buzzfeed even ran a quiz called ‘Is this a vagina or a Georgia O’Keeffe painting?’ The punchline was that every single one was an O’Keeffe painting. Hilarious.

And a teacher in America was fired this April for saying the word ‘vagina’ to a group of students when talking about O’Keeffe’s work. You don’t mess with the art police – they’re more powerful than you know. 

To be fair, the Tate hasn't included her vagina-iest of paintings in this exhibition, but their point is that we can’t let a man’s opinion define how we approach O’Keeffe’s art. She refused the vagina interpretation, and if anyone should be allowed to define what she was or wasn’t painting, it’s probably the artist.

Read our review of the Georgia O'Keeffe show.

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