- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

ART AND THE CRISIS OF MARRIAGE: EDWARD HOPPER AND GEORGIA O’KEEFFE

By Vivien Green Fryd

University of Chicago Press, $40, 228 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ALEXANDER ELIOT

This volume is handsomely produced and packed with intriguing illlustrations, but Vivien Green Fryd’s text made me cross. It so happens that I knew the artists in question. I liked them, and respsected them enormously. I don’t see why they should be chosen to illustrate “Art and The Crisis of Marriage” in general. Both Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe were extremely special people — great, in fact. So their marriages were in no way typical.

I hate panning other people’s texts, and so I finally decided to pass on this one. At that point the author Jane Winslow Eliot — my wife of 50 years — volunteered to read it. She found it rather morbidly fascinating. When we were young, Jane reminded me, there was indeed a crisis atmosphere to marriage, plus lots of bittersweet discussion about it. All the couples whom we knew were somewhat unhappy together. They tended to stray, spat, and at least threaten divorce.

Upon reading the book, along with Jane’s numerous comments, I must admit that its socio-historical context seems sound after all; and Ms. Fryd’s research is rich in detailed information as opposed to vulgar gossip. Even so, she gets a good many things wrong. For example, she credits somebody else for my Time magazine cover story on Hopper.

“Jo,” his dear chirpy sparrow of a wife, was a painter in her own right, but not especially talented. Much as I liked her I politely ignored her work, and other art critics did the same. She stood glowing bravely in her husband’s glum shadow. That cannot have been easy, but I contest the assumption that Jo and Edward must therefore have suffered a miserable married life. Such was never my impression of the pair. I saw them as intense, totally involved, lifelong partners in a tremendous enterprise. Namely, Hopper’s prodigious effort to depict familiar aspects of our 20th-century American experience as seen through his own profound sensibility — the yearning, burning eyes of Eros in limbo.

So long as one presumes to stare down other people’s masterpieces with a fish-cold, psychoanalytical or socioscientific eye, one won’t come close to enjoying — let alone understanding — them. I’m not saying this as a criticism, but simply because I feel it must be said. You can’t squeeze genius into any sociological bottle, nor will it be caught in anybody’s butterfly net of psychological speculation.

Ms. Fryd devotes page after page to a solemnly detailed account of how Hopper’s only moderately successful “Girlie Show” (for which Jo posed) was made. She calls it: “One more battleground within their troubled marriage … the work became an active agent in a dialectic between husband and wife, artist and model, beholder and subject, male and female, and painter and manager.”

Then comes a curious cat-leap into another picture: “Even when Hopper did representations of Jo unclothed for works that do not function as preliminary drawings for final paintings, these informal images defy his tendency to sexualize the female body. In “Reclining Nude” Jo appears unaware of her husband’s presence. Her relaxed, informal position, combined with the lack of emphasis upon her breasts, indicates that when Jo is not ‘on show’ Hopper could render her in less voluptuous and sexually charged modes.”

In “Reclining Nude” there’s no “emphasis” on the breasts because in fact her back is turned and her shapely fundament is featured instead. To my own eye, “Girlie Show” contains no sexual charge, whereas this quick sketch is the sexiest and tenderest imaginable tribute to Jo — and a small paen to conjugal intimacy as well.

The lovely, affectionate watercolor called “Jo in Wyoming” shows Jo painting a landscape from the front seat of their car, Hopper has taken a back seat, for once, in order to depict her.

“This car,” Ms. Fryd comments, “served as a site for bitter disputes between Edward and Jo, who significantly does not sit before the steering wheel in the painting.” But the only “significance” there is that one can’t very well paint a picture with a steering wheel in one’s way.

It’s true that Hopper was silent and wintery as a frozen brook most of the time, and thus a considerable trial to Jo. It’s also true that Jo was a terrible cook, a frighteningly bad driver, and temperamental to boot. They were both human, in short, yet faithful to the end, and fondly protective of each other. I’m sure the author means no harm, but at the same time I feel compelled to defend the Hoppers against her doubtless unconscious condescension.

Were there many tense and angry moments in the Hoppers’ long, faithful partnership? Naturally; what domestic scene lacks those? The pair could be quite funny about theirs. Once when Edward remarked that, “Living with a woman is like living with two or three tigers,” Jo sighed and topped him easily:

“This everlasting argument! He’d be up first to watch for the first thing I’d say in the morning and then be ready to disagree with it… . Marriage is difficult, but the thing has to be gone through.”

I would guess that the Hoppers’ married life may actually have been less strained than most. However, the other marriage in this book — the one between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz — was something else again. Not just one but both parties to it stood among the world giants of art.

The only comparable union in history, so far as I’m aware, was contemporary with theirs. I mean the one between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Like the Riveras, the Stieglitzes also churned up and passed through passionately tangles and fiery times, whether together or apart — as indeed they often were.

I became well acquainted with Stieglitz during the years just before his death in 1946, and he was always very kind to me. I regarded him then (and I still do) as the greatest photographer ever. He made no less than 329 photos of O’Keeffe, the majority of which were caressingly sensual. This book includes some of the least successful works in that intermittently marvelous opus. Ms. Fryd’s straight-faced comment:

“It can be argued that Stieglitz obsessively photographed O’Keeffe in a multitude of fragmented images to assuage his own fear of castration.”

I didn’t know anyone still talked like that. Looking back, O’Keeffe herself wryly confessed: “You blink when you shouldn’t … Your ear itches or some other spot itches. Your arms and hands get tired, and you can’t stay still. I was often spoiling a photograph because I couldn’t help moving — and a great deal of fuss was made about it.”

Ms. Fryd’s reaction runs as follows: “The actual process of taking the photograph, then, tends to negate the eroticism of the finished product, although the model’s discomfort is invisible.”

I once interviewed O’Keeffe at length, an unforgettable encounter. She awed me; I’d never in my life met a more forthright, quick, perceptive, and impressive person. As we talked about her work, I finally felt able to ask the question that a thousand and one “Freudian” sophisticates were repeating at cocktail parties. It concerned her close-up, in-your-face flower pictures. Might they symbolize …?

“No, they’re flowers.”

Well, they are, and then again they’re a lot more than that. But brute symbolism would be less, not more. No great artist is content merely to symbolize nor to merely represent, either. O’Keeffe’s flower paintings encapsulate one woman’s extremely deep and strong feelings in a cool and broodingly objective way. The same goes for her early abstractions, Southwestern landscapes, animal skull pictures, pelvic bone pictures, and poetic evocations of midtown, nighttime Manhattan.

Speaking of Manhattan, Ms. Fryd’s visually entertaining and instructive yet exasperating book devotes an entire chapter to “The Radiator Building.” There she writes:

“Besides creating, controlling and manipulating New York City in ‘The Radiator Building,’ O’Keeffe did the same with the male body. The centralized skyscraper evokes Stieglitz through the abstracted phallus with its highlighted crown, framed on the left by the red sign with his name. These two references indicated O’Keeffe’s desire to fragment his body and personality into component parts that both reveal and obscure him.”

My eyes glazed over for a minute there, but then came a refreshingly commonsense conclusion:

“As O’Keeffe admitted shortly after his death, ‘Stieglitz was the leader or he didn’t play. It was his game and we all played along or left the game.’ ‘The Radiator Building’ could be seen within this context as a symbol of O’Keeffe’s desire to remove the male power and privilege of critics (especially her husband) who expressed a sexualized and sexist interpretation of her work … She did not want to castrate her husband per se, but wished to cut off his power to shape her public identity, and to empower herself.”

Fair enough. O’Keeffe once wondered, in a letter to Sherwood Anderson, whether “man has ever been written down the way he has written women down … The things they write sound so strange and far removed from what I feel of myself.”

Alexander Eliot is an art critic in California.

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