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Artist Georgia O'Keeffe seen as fashion icon in new exhibit

Georgia O’Keeffe’s art didn’t end at the borders of her paintings.

As a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem demonstrates, her creativity extended to the way that she presented herself to the world.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style,” which opened Saturday and will be on display through April 1, is based on research by Wanda Corn, a retired professor of art history at Stanford University.

As a scholar of modern American painting, Corn was thoroughly familiar with O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers, skyscrapers and cow skulls when she discovered that a collection of the painter’s clothes had been archived at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“So one question ... I started to ask when I learned about this collection was, why did she save them?” Corn said. “What was so important that they were not only saved, but preserved in beautiful condition?”

Her answer is that O’Keeffe chose outfits to wear — especially when she was having her picture taken — that explored colors and forms that also appear in her paintings.

An example is provided by three items at the beginning of the exhibit, where her painting “In the Patio IX” from 1964 appears next to a dress that O’Keeffe owned that was created in 1954 by Italian designer Emilio Pucci.

The painting is an abstraction, based on an architectural detail from O’Keeffe’s house in New Mexico, that features a black V shape in its center. The dress is divided into white and black areas that create a dramatic, white V in its top half.

These items are displayed with an enlarged photo of O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, then her husband, in which she is wearing a black skirt and jacket along with a white blouse, where her neckline forms another V.

“That is our foundation for the show,” said Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American art at the museum. “We encourage you to look for these forms and elements of abstraction throughout.”

While the things that O’Keeffe painted and wore were not limited to these shapes and colors, they persist over time, attesting to O’Keeffe’s discipline in choosing images for her art that also figured in the creation of her public image.

“I do want to make clear this is not a fashion exhibition,” said Linda Hartigan, deputy director of Peabody Essex Museum. “It is more about how someone has worked very deliberately and aesthetically to fashion herself in terms of her identity and her image.”

The link between O’Keeffe’s clothes and art is established in photographs, many of which appear in the show. Stieglitz took 300 pictures of O’Keeffe, which taught her how to model and pose, Bailly said. O’Keeffe was also featured in fashion magazines, such as Vogue, throughout her career and later in House Beautiful and House and Garden, where her homes in New Mexico were featured.

“John Loengard, who photographed her for Life, described her late years from about 1968 on as a media marathon,” Bailly said. “She was that sought-after as a model for famous photographers of her time.”

At the height of her fame, O’Keeffe was often portrayed as “Saint Georgia,” staring into the distance with a mystical gaze, Bailly said. But the basic elements of O’Keeffe’s androgynous look were apparent from an early age.

“You can see portraits of her from her youth that signal to you that she is an independent, that she is standing out for her attraction to minimalism — to not having poofed-up hair and flouncy bows, but a slicked-back, austere hairstyle; pressed sleeves; a very distilled and minimalist aesthetic, even as a young girl,” Bailly said.

The show also reveals that O’Keeffe was an accomplished seamstress and displays intricately stitched blouses and tunics that she is believed to have made.

“She’s taking peasant blouses, and the tunics — sort of loose, flowing, natural forms, uncorseted, (with) freedom of movement — all of these kinds of properties are very important to her as a modern woman,” Bailly said.

But once O’Keeffe had enough money, she had items made for her by tailors in Spain and New York, one of whom also made suits for Marlene Dietrich. Along with a rack of such bespoke outfits, the exhibit also includes kimonos that O’Keeffe bought during trips to Japan, which attest to her love of Asian arts and culture.

While the first half of the exhibit is devoted to O’Keeffe’s early years in New York, where her clothes are mostly black and white, the second half draws from her life in New Mexico, where she first traveled in 1929 and then moved permanently in 1949. This section includes dresses by American designers, especially from Marimekko, that feature the reds, purples and browns that also appear in her paintings of New Mexico’s landscape.

“O’Keeffe rejected the bold, bright, psychedelic flower patterns that Marimekko was famous for in the ’60s and chose palettes from the more subdued end of their spectrum,” Bailly said.

The exhibit also links the blue jeans that O’Keeffe started to wear in New Mexico with the skies over the Southwestern desert, which appear in many of her paintings from this region.

“She’s responding to this color blue, it does connect her clothed body to the blue skies that were so prevalent most of the year in New Mexico,” Bailly said. “She talks about being able to see the blue skies through the bones that she walked and collected and found in the landscape.”

To demonstrate the lasting impact of O’Keeffe’s unique style, the show ends with video from a fashion show for Dior’s Cruise 2018 Collection, which was held outdoors in Calabasas, California.

“Maria Grazia Chiuri cited O’Keeffe as a primary influence on the collection,” Bailly said. “I think you can see right away the elements of O’Keeffe’s style that they are taking as a point of departure for this collection.”Read more at:prom dress shops | prom dresses

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