Now appreciated as the “Mother of Modernism,” in 1939 Georgia O’Keeffe added to her established status as a celebrated modern artist when she visited Hawai’i. Commissioned by a Hawaiian pineapple company to produce images for its promotional campaign, O’Keeffe traveled from New York City to Hawai’i, all expenses paid. There, the sublime fragrances, floral pageantry, surreal atmospheres, exotic landscapes, and spectacularly unique island views titillated her. With an incredible and adventurous leap she expanded her artistic horizons beyond the desert regions of the Southwest. Considering that the journey took much longer than today’s flights and Hawai’i was a U.S. Territory, O’Keeffe broke new ground as a female artist.
In a first-of-its-kind exhibit, which includes 20 of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works produced during her travels to paradise, the New York Botanical Garden is showcasing O’Keeffe’s Visions of Hawai’i. The exhibit amazes with O’Keeffe’s floral and landscape works of exotic tropical vitality. Indeed, two of these have not been seen together in New York City since 1940. Additionally, the Enid A. Haupt conservatory highlights O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian journey by representing a panorama of diverse canoe plants (those introduced by Polynesians) and cultivated plant species, a number of which O’Keeffe featured in her paintings. The 300 types of targeted plants in the conservatory parallel those that O’Keeffe encountered during her exotic journey. The plantings designed by Francisca Coelho and the set pieces by Scott Pask provide a lovely accompaniment to O’Keeffe’s incredible work.
Arriving in Honolulu, O’Keeffe first visited gardens, mansions, and the gorgeous tropical environs of elite society. Examining and familiarizing herself with more common floral species like lotus and white angel’s trumpet, she accumulated flowers and leis as her research material. Some of these she painted. She then began to immerse herself in the exotic unfamiliar. For example she reveled in the “perfectly fantastic” structural complexity of the white bird of paradise. Also, as she gradually attuned herself to her environs, she concentrated on in-depth views of a single floral species, painting the hibiscus in different configurations. Thus, the paintings cohere with the serial modernism of O’Keeffe’s other works. Indeed, according to curator Dr. Theresa Papanikolas, Ph.D., by this point in her painting career the artist displays her “personal transformation from tourist to ensconced visiting artist.”
Papanikolas provided her extensive expertise as she worked with the NYBG staff to unveil an intriguing, little-known chapter in the life and times of Georgia O’Keeffe. Papanikolas is the Deputy Director of Art and Programs and Curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Museum of Art. She oversees the museum’s curatorial department, educational programs, Art School, library, installations team, Visitor Information Center, and permanent collection.
Dr. Papanikolas provided interesting tidbits about O’Keeffe’s commission. Advertising firm N. W. Ayer & Son assumed O’Keeffe would paint a picture of a pineapple to appear in a print advertisement to satisfy the Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Instead, O’Keeffe painted a papaya tree and sent it to them. An irony! They had to send her a pineapple, which she dutifully painted – though Dr. Papanikolas suggested O’Keeffe most probably was working from her imagination and remembrance of the pineapples she had seen growing in Hawai’i.
During her nine-week journey through the islands O’Keeffe recorded her impressions in letters, photographs, sketches and paintings. The NYBG exhibit includes some of these. You will find the print advertisement, the 20 paintings, and the other material in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Specifically, the paintings are in the Library Art Gallery.
As O’Keeffe familiarized herself with the unique Hawaiian terrain, she launched out into new adventures. She took excursions and camped in infrequently explored areas of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
Significantly, O’Keeffe became excited about Maui’s rocky lava formations careening into the sea. She thrilled at the black sand beaches and the lush ‘lao valley. This she painted in a few iterations. Typically for O’Keeffe, she applied her modernistic style to represent how the incredible natural visions she saw touched her emotionally. On her excursions, she soaked up the forms, textures, symmetries, and plant structures. She gleaned as much as time, interest, and inspiration allowed her. And then as abruptly as she dropped into the Port of Honolulu, she packed up and left. Apparently, intuition had whispered that her time there had ended. Nevertheless, during her nine weeks, she completed an enduring body of dramatic and impressive work to add to her burgeoning collection.
Because the New York Botanical Garden concerns itself with preservation and sustainability, the exhibit informs us about Hawai’i’s habitats and plant diversity. There are dozens of specific habitat plant types in the islands. Considering the terrain encompasses snow-capped mountains, beaches, tropical rain forests, and desert, Hawai’i’s ecological diversity is amazing for its meager square mileage. Interestingly, the key problem Hawaiians face (aside from erupting volcanoes) concerns native plant extinction. Thus far, 38 native plants have become extinct and 87 percent of native plants are endangered.
The display in the conservatory identifies the three distinct eras and their flora in Hawai’i. Look for the last two era identifications next to the plantings. Native plants evolved over millions of years. Indeed, 90% of these cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Then the canoe plants, brought over 1,500 years ago by Polynesians, provided food and usefulness to island settlers. These include breadfruit, coconut, banana, sugarcane, and taro. Particularly look for breadfruit, banana, and taro in the conservatory. The breadfruit is by the Hawaiian-inspired hale (open-sided thatched roof pavilion).
Last, post-contact plants arrived after 1778 when Captain James Cook and others introduced them. These agricultural and ornamental plants grow in gardens and farms. Sadly, many have become invasive. However, in the conservatory you will find the gorgeous vibrant flowers that flourish in the tropics. These include the ti plant, bougainvillea, heliconia, hibiscus, bird-of-paradise, ginger, belladonna, white angel’s trumpet, and more. And of course O’Keeffe painted a number of these whose structures entranced her.
Apparently, O’Keeffe didn’t find inspiration from the function, history, and nature of the plants she captured in her oils. Indeed, she may not have known that some of the species she viewed faced eventual extinction. According to Dr. Papanikolas, O’Keeffe concerned herself with floral forms, their beauty, color, and structure. I asked her if there was any relationship between her paintings of belladonna and white angel’s trumpet and their being highly poisonous. Dr. Papanikolas stated that as far as she knew, O’Keeffe didn’t concern herself with the horticultural aspects of florals.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Visions of Hawai’i currently at the NYBG until 28 October will delight you with its beauty and inspire you to appreciate this little-known journey of the artist’s life and career. Because the exhibition features many segments, you will want to allow enough time for each. Or you may return a number of times to further investigate what you missed the first or second time around.
Look for the various canoe plants. Also appreciate the numerous types of hibiscus and compare them to O’Keeffe’s renditions in her hibiscus oils on canvas in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery. See if you can locate the belladonna and the various locations of white angel’s trumpet, a dynamic, striking flower which she often painted. Finally, examine the heliconia closely. Why did O’Keeffe find fascination with its complex structure? The flower also comes in different colors.
The exhibit also holds instructional activities for the serious O’Keeffe fan. In the Britton Rotunda you may watch the short film Off in the Far Away Somewhere: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Letters from Hawai’i. Or you might just want to expand your knowledge of Hawai’i and its intricate horticultural diversity. The Britton Gallery features Flora Hawaiiensis: Plants of Hawai’i. Tracing the history of Hawai’i’s flora, from unusual native plants to those prized by ancient Hawaiians, and the flowers O’Keeffe chose to paint, you will discover amazing information about our 50th state.
Additionally, the Ross Gallery displays Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian Voyage, highlights of her journey from New York to the islands. Hawaiian-Chinese sculptor Mark Chai’s outdoor installations may be viewed at the entrance. There will be Hawaiian-inspired food available at the Hudson Garden Grill and elsewhere.
Aloha Nights spotlight the culture that enthralled Georgia O’Keeffe’s emotions and heart. The dates are June 2, 9, 16, 23, & 30; July 7 & 21; August 4 & 18 from 6:30 – 10:30 pm.
On select Celebrate Hawai’i Weekends there will be performers, artists, and artisans from Hawai’i celebrating the islands’ unique heritage.
Visit the exhibition webpage for special programming.