Art for the Sake of Art

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During the past few years a number of excellent bioflicks about visual artists have hit the screen. Pictures such as “Pollock,” “Seraphine,” and “Modigliani” come to mind. Another such movie, which ran on TV last year, is now available for rental or purchase. “Georgia O’Keeffe” is a little gem.

O’Keeffe (represented in this work by Joan Allen) was born in 1887 and grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. Her interest in and talent for art was recognized early and supported in the home and school. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago for two years, then the Art Students League in New York for two more. After a few years’ break from painting, she learned a new approach to art from the influential instructor Arthur Wesley Dow of Teachers College of Columbia University. Dow, himself a good painter, held that the purpose of art is to use color and technique to express the artist’s emotions and ideas.

Shortly after this, in 1916, she mailed some of her drawings to a friend, who in turn showed them to a man who would become the most influential person in her adult life, the world-famous photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz (played by Jeremy Irons).

Stieglitz exhibited some of her works that year, then held a one-person show of her work the next year. In 1918, he offered her financial support to move to New York (from Texas, where she had been teaching) and paint full time.

She accepted, and at about this time she and Stieglitz became romantically as well as professionally linked. They married in 1924.

It was in the 1920s that O’Keeffe started to achieve national and international stature, with pictures of New York’s buildings as well as of the enlarged flowers for which she remains famous. She was one of the earliest American artists to be influential in Europe, and she obtained large prices for her paintings — all the more remarkable given that few women artists were prominent then.

For his part, Stieglitz worked hard to promote her art (if not their romance). During this time (the early 1920s till his death in 1946) she worked with him in New York City or at the Stieglitz family home in Lake George, New York.

In 1929, she made her first visit to New Mexico, and fell in love with it. Three years after Stieglitz’s death, she moved there for good. She painted New Mexican landscapes and artifacts — which gave her a new burst of fame — until her poor eyesight forced her to stop painting in 1972. She kept doing pottery until 1984. She died in 1986.

The movie surveys the period in O’Keeffe’s life from her meeting with Stieglitz to the point when his infidelity becomes unbearable. The movie focuses on their relationship, which was marked by a continued admiration of and support for each other’s work, even as the emotional relationship fell apart.

Joan Allen gives a beautiful performance as O’Keeffe, portraying vividly the grief and hurt inflicted by Stieglitz. Allen has been nominated three times for an Oscar, and she is at her best here. Jeremy Irons — who has won his Oscar — plays Stieglitz superbly. We never quite make out whether he intended to

be vicious towards O’Keeffe (out of jealousy for her greater talent and success, perhaps?) or was just so damn narcissistic that he simply didn’t see the pain he inflicted.

Also excellent are the supporting actors. Tyne Daly is fine as O’Keeffe’s friend and supporter Mabel Dodge Luhan. Ed Begley, Jr., is outstanding as Stieglitz’s brother Lee. Begley is mainly known for his many comedic performances, but he performs this dramatic role well (as befits the son of an Oscar winning dramatist).

The film work is deliciously done, with the shots of New Mexico especially noteworthy.

This movie about an artist is itself a work of art, well worth seeking out.

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