- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

Pioneer female artists Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo staked out new visual and visionary ground during the early years of the last century.
The Canadian, American and Mexican fought for recognition as women and artists. Revered and ridiculed, the three launched an arsenal of revolutionary, stylistic, personal and cultural weapons that eventually gained them fame and respect. The artists became the darlings of the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s and exhibit after exhibit followed.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) yesterday opened the exhibit "Places of Their Own: Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo," a show requiring savvy and courage to avoid almost inevitable repetition. The museum demonstrates bravery but not wisdom.
The Phillips Collection has repeatedly shown Miss O'Keeffe's work, most recently the exceptional "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things" in 1999. The artist was a favorite of founder Duncan Phillips, who collected her paintings. NMWA borrowed "From the White Place" (1940) from the Phillips for this show.
The National Gallery of Art honored Miss O'Keeffe with a major retrospective in 1987.
The NMWA has shown works by Kahlo many times, as has the Mexican Cultural Institute. Only the work of Carr is new for Washingtonians.
Exhibit curator Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, a resident of Santa Fe, N.M., says she intends to primarily examine the artistry of the three in this show of 62 works, but she just as strongly places them in their personal, social and political milieus.
"Viewed as the journeys of stubborn, romantic individuals, their creative lives depended as much on finding a self as on defining a style. Throughout, I look at how the creative process feeds and is fed by the making of a personal mythology," the curator writes in the exhibit catalog.
Moreover, she says she believes that all their work, be it primordial trees, rolling hills, oak leaves or lakes, is essentially self-portraiture. The artist's search for self is hardly new, but Mrs. Udall asserts it was different for the three women because they lived while artistic, sexual and social roles were changing. (Carr lived from 1871 to 1945, Miss O'Keeffe from 1887 to 1986 and Kahlo from 1907 to 1954). The three artists didn't belong to the old boys' clubs, clean house or raise families (although Kahlo desperately wanted children). The curator makes a significant omission, however, when she doesn't address how Kahlo's more famous husband, Diego Rivera, helped her or how Alfred Stieglitz promoted wife O'Keeffe's career.
Mrs. Udall presents the trio in the context of "their places": the identity with locations in nature; their positions in their cultures, especially those of native peoples; and the "personal mythologies" they created through work, writing and projection of public personae. Hence, the excellent exhibit title, "Places of Their Own."
The curator introduces the show with Carr's paintings in the "Nature" category. The first oils of trees and forests look old-fashioned, but the artist's style loosens up with ribbons of color sweeping works such as "Above the Gravel Pit" (1936) and "Abstract Tree Forms" (1932). Carr was an early environmentalist and believed that trees suffered when cut. She portrays a large felled tree in the monumental "Roots" (circa 1937-39). Mrs. Udall says the artist called tree stumps "screams."
Carr also tried to express what she considered the "spirituality" of trees in "Grey" (1936). The painter reduced the tree to its most spare geometric shape and folded it in on itself to form a light, central triangle for Carr, its heart. She identified with trees, saying, "Trees are so much more sensible then people, steadier and more enduring."
Both Carr and Miss O'Keeffe admired Asian art and philosophy and incorporated them into their work. This allowed Carr to use thinned oil on paper for her large, rapid sketches. She needed to use inexpensive materials, and she painted with good-quality house paint, thinned with gasoline adding oils when necessary on large sheets of cheap Manila paper. Returning from a trip to New York and a meeting with Miss O'Keeffe at Stieglitz's gallery, Carr began large studio charcoal drawings based on trees, but becoming more and more abstract.
Carr may have seen Miss O'Keeffe's charcoals, an important part of the New York artist's work in the 1920s. Both painted nature-based spiritual energies: Carr the animism of the forest, Miss O'Keeffe a more distanced anthropomorphism.
Miss O'Keefe found life, not death, in animal skulls and bones. Critics have called "From the White Place" a "bodyscape," a humanlike grouping of rock and sand near her home in Abiquiu, N.M.
Mrs. Udall writes in an exhibit label of "Red Hills With the Pedernal" (1936), "What seemed bare and dead to others evoked sensory pleasure for O'Keeffe raw pink shapes unmistakably flesh-like extend across the foreground before a cool distant mesa."
The curator has to make a bit of a stretch in showing Kahlo's connections with nature. Kahlo suffered from polio contracted as a child, which left one leg shorter than the other. She also was in a horrific bus-car crash in 1925 and underwent numerous operations.
The artist was born and died in the "Casa Azul" ("Blue House") in a suburb of Mexico City and rarely ventured outside. Her only real contact with nature was in the plant-filled courtyard of the house.
She loved animals and kept monkeys and deer as pets (the curator includes one of her most famous paintings, "The Little Deer" of 1946, in the show). Kahlo created plants and flowers in highly original ways. She painted leaves with heavy veins, as though they simulated the human circulatory system.
The exhibit's two other sections, "Culture" and "The Public Self," deal with more obvious material and flow less coherently. The lack of connection comes, in part, from the museum's physical limitations and lack of clear, directive signs.
In "Culture," Carr and Kahlo both borrowed from the native art of their countries. While Carr's evocations of totem poles, mystic beings and villages appear simplistic, Kahlo attractively mined her rich "Mexicanidad" heritage by painting herself with elaborate native headdresses, traditional "Tehuana" dress and folk images.
"The Public Self" illustrates the artists' personae as Mrs. Udall sees them. Carr wanted to symbolize "The West." Miss O'Keeffe wished to be seen as an "American Original." Kahlo imaged herself as "The Modern Mexican Woman."
The exhibition contains much beautiful art. In it eagerness to push a feminist agenda, however, it covers a lot of old territory.

WHAT: "Places of Their Own: Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo"
WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through May 12
TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors (60 and older), free for NMWA members and persons 18 and under
PHONE: 202/783-5000

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