Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 25, 2008
Kathleen Pyne Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle Exh. cat. Berkeley, Santa Fe, and Atlanta: University of California Press, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and High Museum of Art Atlanta, 2007. 378 pp.; 97 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (9780520241893)
Exhibition schedule: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, September 21, 2007–January 13, 2008; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 9–May 4, 2008; San Diego Museum of Art, May 24–September 28, 2008

This impressive and dense book examines a subject that on the surface seems to have been fully explored: early American modernism and the Stieglitz circle.1 Alfred Stieglitz’s renowned wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, remains a central figure among these various publications. It is not surprising, then, that Kathleen Pyne also weaves her text around the importance of this artist who, according to Pyne’s account, fulfilled Stieglitz’s search for a “woman-child,” a sexually active adult who could retain her childhood innocence to capture in her art a pure, essential feminine vision, and who could assist him in creating his own identity as a modernist man in defiance of bourgeois materialism and gentility. Pyne argues that Stieglitz supported various women before O’Keeffe, whom he believed could embody this ideal; but each of them, with the exception of his future wife, failed to fulfill his expectations. She thus also examines the art and lives of Gertrude Käsebier, Pamela Colman Smith, Anne Brigman, and Katharine Nash Rhoades, two of whom were photographers who belonged to the Photo-Secession group. This book is unique in its focus on a number of women artists in addition to O’Keeffe in the Stieglitz circle, and its concentration on photography as well as painting.

In the first chapter, Pyne argues that Käsebier’s photographs constructed the maternal home of female domesticity, thereby adhering to a prominent theme among the Photo-Secessionists. She suggests that this founding member of the Photo-Secessionists and “female figurehead” of the group (15) derived from James McNeil Whistler the trope of the “white girl,” a female body divested of sexuality, chastened, and mystical, who became the model middle-class angel of the house. Käsebier’s fame derived from “her signature image—a modern mother whose maternal creativity is expressed in the aesthetic of whiteness” (21), which Pyne restates slightly differently some pages later: “her representation of maternal femininity as whiteness” (27). Pyne also examines in this chapter the fascinating and relatively unexplored images by Smith, arguing that in her Stieglitz found “an authentic primitive and childlike voice that spoke the truth of the inner self against the restrictions of cultural convention” (47). Smith and Käsebier thus formed two paradigms of the woman artist as a mystical voice; the latter celebrated the familiar intimacies of bourgeois domesticity as woman’s true reality while the former, in her illustrated cards, music sheets, illustrations for children’s books, and Shakespearean prints, created a universe of “the nocturnal dreamworld of the soul, freed from the pettiness and material burdens of domesticity and the marketplace” (58).

Stieglitz, however, could not sustain his promotion of either artist. Smith’s Symbolist works did not adhere to his newfound interest and support of modernism, while Käsebier could not escape from her older Victorian paradigm as the sexually repressed matriarch of the late nineteenth century. “By 1910,” Pyne argues, “Stieglitz rejected the sublimation demanded by the musical, elusive, feminized work of art, turning instead to the erotic gratification evoked in masculine modernist images, especially those offering the female nude” as embodied, ultimately, in the “ideal form as O’Keeffe’s body, as a figure that for him preserved the innocence of childhood while promising the bliss of adult sexuality” (15–16). He eventually abandoned his support of all the Photo-Secessionists, including Käsebier, disparaging them as stagnant and commercial.

Beginning in 1909 and over the next five years, prior to discovering O’Keeffe and her art, Stieglitz promoted Brigman, the subject of Pyne’s next chapter. Brigman, according to Pyne, shows the process of how a woman artist detached herself from the maternal paradigm and conventional bourgeois domesticity, engaging instead in self-discovery by photographing herself nude in a variety of dance-like poses outdoors to uncover hidden truths about female sexuality as natural. Pyne convincingly argues that Brigman’s choreographed poses glorify the female body’s beauty as well as reveal its soul in ways that resemble Isadora Duncan, someone Steiglitz also admired for revealing her sexuality as the mystical origin of her art by using modern dance to externalize her inner self. According to Pyne, Brigman’s self-portraits always show nude women in an ambivalent relationship to the outdoors, both struggling against and uniting with nature, thereby demonstrating a woman’s predicament of becoming a liberated modern individual and embodying her expressive voice. Exhibited at the same time as the nudes by Rodin and Matisse, Brigman’s photographs were embraced in Camera Work as “an original and powerful voice whose speech belonged to an elemental, premodern order and was invested with the sublime of nature, its crescendos of mystery, beauty, and terror” (77). Brigman, like Käsebier and Smith, could not maintain Stieglitz’s attention, in part because by 1910 she began to feel uncomfortable with the overt erotic expressions among the Stieglitz male artists, and because she eventually abandoned the female nude as her subject matter. Brigman, nevertheless, “tutored Stieglitz in how to orchestrate the female body to evoke an imagined feminine sexuality,” thereby providing a model for Stieglitz’s photographic Georgia O’Keeffe (1918), whose body and soul would be embedded in the formal rhythms of her art forms (113).

As Pyne argues in chapter 3, when Stieglitz met Rhoades in 1911, he thought he had found his ideal woman. But Rhoades could not adhere to his demands that she become a woman-child, partly because she refused to engage in free sex with him as associated with newer ideas of sexuality influenced by Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and others. As Pyne correctly suggests, Rhoades recognized that to succumb to Stieglitz’s appeals for an intimate, sexual relationship, which he argued would enable her development into a woman-child and her attainment of a more authentic voice in her art, would place her in a double bind, resulting in her engagement in an extramarital affair that was dangerous for single women despite changing attitudes toward sexuality. In this chapter, Pyne provides a wonderful analysis of Stieglitz’s series of exhibitions of children’s art, constructing a model of the child as “primitive, virile, spontaneous . . . and an innocent, secretive, interiorized self” (153). His ten-year-old niece, Georgia Engelhard, fulfilled his expectations of “The Child Unguided—Untaught” and “supplied a model for adult modernists” and “tropes of femininity” (153). “After 1916,” Pyne states, “Stieglitz imprinted gender on his template of the artist as child: she was a ‘wonder-child’ (Rhoades) or the ‘Great Child’ (O’Keeffe)” (154). By 1917, however, Stieglitz realized that Rhoades could not fulfill his expectations of a modern woman-child artist, primarily because of her refusal to become his lover. He then decided that O’Keeffe was a better candidate. What is disturbing about this account, which Pyne never addresses but that arises from her careful reading of letters between Rhoades and Stiegliz, is the danger involved when an older, married, father-like man attempts to manipulate a younger, single woman into having an affair under the guise of releasing her creative potential. Similarly, knowing that Engelhard was Stieglitz’s niece makes his eroticized nude photographs of her problematic in ways that Pyne could have examined. This is especially the case given the number of affairs that Stieglitz had while married to his first wife and later to O’Keeffe, something I explored in Art and the Crisis of Marriage.

Stieglitz’s search for a woman modernist who affirmed the sexologists’ image of woman as child, both pure and sexually active, was essential to his construction of modernism at 291 gallery. O’Keeffe, according to Pyne, ultimately fulfilled this search, which he realized around the same time that he showed his niece’s art. Pyne thus begins to weave O’Keeffe into her narrative, showing how she ultimately was able to fulfill Stieglitz’s expectations by revealing her interior life as an eroticized woman. “Rhoades offered Stieglitz a dress rehearsal for O’Keeffe” as “the female partner required in the modernist theater of New York” (189). Pyne’s final chapter thus focuses on O’Keeffe in the 1920s, arguing that she “at first willingly took on the figure of the child in her identity until Stieglitz’s subtext for her and her art fully emerged” (192). She adopted the “‘Great Child’ identity” because it enabled her “to find a modernist visual vocabulary that would allow her inner self to speak” (192), in the process realizing Stieglitz’s desire for a woman who would disclose her “essence as a pure, natural sexual energy” (216). At the same time, O’Keeffe as woman-child became Stieglitz’s mirror image, “a reflection of his purer self” (215). Much of the information in this chapter has been explored elsewhere in more nuanced ways, especially by Wagner in Three Artists (Three Women), but two new important points are made about O’Keeffe: her early works reveal an interest in children’s drawings as a means to release intuitive vision; and her charcoal drawings often contain a spiral motif, which came from the unconscious, and that reappear in her mature paintings to become a signature form. This signature motif also derived from the influence of design books, the costume designs of Léon Bakst, as well as the work of Wassily Kandinsky. Suggesting, however, that some of Stieglitz’s portraits of O’Keeffe continue the trope of Whistler’s white girls is especially problematic, given how sexualized and eroticized the model appears in these photographs.

The chapters on Käsebier and Brigman occasionally detour into problematic psychoanalytic interpretations. Pyne argues, for example, that Sadakichi Hartmann’s lecture on mystery published in Camera Work (1904) embeds his “imagery in a preoedipal, prelinguistic motherworld of the deep psyche” (11), and that the “white girls” of the pictorialists (i.e., Clarence White, Käsebier, and Edward Steichen) sustained “the nostalgia and chase after the lost jouissance of that childhood bliss” (15). Elsewhere she asserts that Stieglitz’s modernism “was one of many efforts to commit matricide, to possess the figure of desire—the daughter” (78). Moreover, some interpretations of artworks seem forced. This is evident, for example, in Pyne’s analysis of the pitcher held in Evelyn Nesbit’s right hand (in Käsebier’s Portrait—Miss N [1901–1902]) as a signifier of “the untouched womb” (39). It is also manifest in the discussion of Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe (1919), in which she holds an African spoon in one hand while pinching her breast with her other. “Stieglitz’s remarkable image . . . estranges the female body, but her embrace of the phallic African spoon here also renders her as Stieglitz’s twin. . . . O’Keeffe . . . stares longingly, desiringly at the African carving, which she holds up in profile so that it resembles a knife or a phallus, as if she is recognizing some part of herself in the fetish object” (227). It is difficult to read this image as a representation of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz as twins by way of a beautiful African artifact, and to see this image in phallic terms or as a fetish-like object.

These questionable analyses of artworks are rare, however; and Pyne employs sophisticated art-historical skills to analyze images throughout most of the text. One wonders why she does not apply this excellence to discussing works by Rhoades. She informs us that this artist destroyed all her works when she died in the 1960s, but one wonders whether they were reproduced anywhere or described in journals or letters. Finally, Pyne could have consulted other secondary texts that draw upon sexology, psychoanalysis, and gender theory to analyze works by these women and other related artists.2 This book nevertheless contributes to the scholarship on the Stieglitz circle, especially in Pyne’s extensive archival research and inclusion of related women modernists.

Vivien Green Fryd
Professor, Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University

1 Among other publications that have recently explored this history are Anne Middleton Wagner’s Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Wanda M Corn’s The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Sarah Greenough’s Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company/Bulfinch Press, 2000); Marcia Brennan’s Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Celeste Connor’s Democratic Visions: Art and Theory of the Stieglitz Circle, 1924–1934 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Vivien Green Fryd’s Art and the Crisis of Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

2 Among some of the secondary sources that would have assisted Pyne are Carol Armstrong, “From Clementina to Käsebier: The Photographic Attainment of the ‘Lady Amateur,’” October 91 (Winter 2000); Judith Fryer, “Women’s Camera Work: Seven Propositions in Search of a Theory,” Prospects 16 (1991); Fryd, Art and the Crisis of Marriage; Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994); and Ellen Wiley Todd, The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).