“So, Georgia, Are Those Flowers Really Vaginas?”

In reading Deborah Solomon’s interesting review of the new book, “My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz”in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I was struck once again by how free literary and artistic men have historically felt to reveal themselves in all their egomaniacal splendor or horror (think Picasso, Hemingway, Styron, Faulkner, Keroac, to name a few) while literary and artistic women have kept silent about themselves (from Austen on).. Steiglitz, the famous photographer and gallery owner, wrote letters that Solomon says “read like an exercise in negative self-salesmanship,” endlessly revealing his hypochondriacal, egomaniacal, wounded self without inhibition to the woman he first hoped to and then did marry.  O’Keeffe, by contrast, throughout their friendship and later marriage “retained her armor of discretion,” Solomon says. She remained silent about her deepest self in these letters–just as she remained silent when critics asked whether those luscious flowers of hers depicted women’s sexual organs.

It would be a mistake to assume that O’Keeffe kept silent about sexuality, and about her deepest self, unintentionally—and Solomon doesn’t suggest that she does.  One of my favorite writers, the late Carolyn G. Heilbrun, wrote a book, Writing a Woman’s Life, asking  why so many autobiographies and biographies of brilliant, important women were so poisonously boring. If famous men can speak of their
cutthroat ambition, their lust for power, mistreatment of women, their deals with drugs, alcohol and the devil,  why did brilliant women artists and writers hold back? Why did their biographers shrink from delving into the souls of their subjects’ lives?

The answer is, because women aren’t supposed to be too angry, too destructive, too ambitious–and God knows, too sexual. Any one of those could kill her reputation, if she was lucky enough to have a reputation while she was alive. One could be a monster of  arrogance, self-importance, destructive ego and temper, and still be thought a brilliant artist but only  if one happened to be a man. At the time O’Keeffe lived, in the early 20th century, women artists and writers had to pretend to have got where they were through luck, happenstance, or the kindness of  strangers—as though no “unladylike” emotion ever propelled or undid them. And their biographers unconsciously colluded in the charade.

Forutnately, we now have women who feel less inhibited about telling the truth about their lives and themselves, and we have  biographers willing to help excavate these truths.  Knowing how women learn to blunt the pain of rejection; the strain of success and power; the rage and self-loathing at failure….the emotions with which all artists struggle, Heilbrun said in 1979, “We must ask women writers to give us, finally, female characters who are complex, whole, and independent—fully human.” O’Keeffe knew the thin line she walked in the 1920s and 30s, with some people calling her a minor talent; others calling her sexually obsessed, and chose even in her letters to her husband to shut up.  It is in no small part thanks to Heilbrun’s understanding of women’s self-silencing,  that  modern artists and biographers are exposing more of women’s deepest truths.

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