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Modernism and the Feminine Voice Essay (Book Review)


THESIS: The book Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle investigate how the two outstanding persons, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, could live together, sharing their unique vision of the world and influencing each other. It is a contribution to the study on American art which lies in the description of modern society, the place of women in it, and the role of O’Keeffe as the female representative of modernism. The book also provides a new author’s theory of O’Keeffe’s secret self-identity that indicates that although she was admitted into the Stieglitz’s circle, she was resistant to his eroticism.

The book Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle written by Kathleen Pyne are devoted to the life-story of Georgia O’Keeffe, an American artist, a pioneer of American modernism and a muse of another famous artist, Alfred Stieglitz, the first American art photographer. The major issues discussed in the book are the place of women in modernism, Stieglitz’s impact on O’Keeffe, and the role of O’Keeffe in Stieglitz’s life.

Thus, Kathleen Pyne indicates that “in the nineteenth century the feminine had been placed outside modernity in a separate, premodern domain”.1 Kathleen Pyne intends to consider O’Keeffe as one of the first women in modernism and, at the same time, a person who was admitted into the Stieglitz’s circle. The author’s investigation of how those two outstanding persons, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, could live together, sharing their unique vision of this world and influencing each other is a contribution to the study on American art.

The book describes the modern society in general, the place of women in it, and the role of O’Keeffe as a female representative of modernism. It provides a new author’s theory of O’Keeffe’s secret self-identity indicating that although she was influenced by Stieglitz, she managed to save her independence and resist his eroticism.

The major issues discussed in the book

In the introduction, Kathleen Pyne explains her choice of the topic and importance of the analysis of O’Keeffe’s life for the study on the history of art. The book focuses on the attempts to investigate the relationships between Alfred Stieglitz and his women. All women in Stieglitz’s life had a serious impact on his perception of reality and his work. Stieglitz was dating several women, Gertrude Kasebier, Pamela Colman Smith, Anne Brigman, and Katharine Nash Rhoades, before meeting Georgia O’Keeffe; however, their relationships lasted until he was tired of them. He developed a strategy to create a modernist woman which he successfully used for O’Keeffe who became his muse until his death. In this female, Stieglitz found those qualities which he could not see in another. It was his legendary success. Stieglitz helped Georgia O’Keeffe express herself and become a modernist woman.

One of the main issues raised in this book is the role of women in modernism. According to the author, the radicals of Green Village “associated modernism with the problem of women”.2 During that period, women got the right to vote, and the old social code started its transformation, providing women with more space for creative work. As culture was based on the acts of individual transformation, modernism offered new perspectives for females.

Trying to find their “true selves”, women were able to express their views through writing and drawing. However, at the same time, generally accepted positions implied that women could be a part of a community dominated by males as well as a part of a culture created by men. Thus, this common view of women’s place is reflected in consideration of O’Keeffe’s career, life, and personality, in general. Thus, Kathleen Pyne indicates that the common view on the place of women in modernism emphasizes women’s oppression by men. Being a part of Stieglitz’s circle meant being outstanding and unique. But, at the same time, all women chosen by Stieglitz were later abandoned.

There were the special requirements for everyone who wanted to join Stieglitz’s company; thus, a person should have been ready “to “bear” one’s essential self to the world, displaying the signs of this life force in the visual energies of the work of art”.3 This story proves that Georgia O’Keeffe was the most successful among the favorites of Stieglitz. After Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe proved her independence and individuality, creating and maintaining her own story. “O’Keeffe’s fame as the lone woman of the Stieglitz circle reflects on Stieglitz’s success in canonizing her, but he is also the result of her own phenomenally long productivity and record of experimentation and her ability to take over and orchestrate her myth after Stieglitz’s death”. 4

The author explores the phenomenon of Stieglitz’s circle and indicates that Stieglitz wanted to find “women in art” and help them express themselves freely. He tries to find his ideal in several women, analyzing them and learning from them. Katharine Nash Rhoades was interested in modernism and philosophy; however, she “refused to move with Stieglitz’s teleology of the feminine”.5 His woman-child model could not be accepted by everyone.

Analyzing the book by Kathleen Pyne, one can notice that the author considers Stieglitz’s attitude towards his women as a teacher-student model. It becomes evident that Stieglitz was eager to create a woman who would reflect his thoughts and views, thus he needed to find the one who would completely satisfy his imagination. At the beginning of their relationships, Georgia O’Keeffe was a toy, a child, who had to learn so much to grow and become a person from Stieglitz’s dreams. However, Georgia O’Keeffe was more than just the working material as she appeared to be able to offer him much more than any of his ex-girlfriends. Stieglitz was finally able to see the reflections of his ideas in O’Keeffe’s image.

However, she had a power not only to represent his modernist ideology but also to develop her philosophy and the way of representation. The author claims that “during their first and most serene years together, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe explored the trope of a return to the original primitive paradise in which they would be exempt from the guilt of knowledge”.6 The author suggests a new theory of O’Keeffe’s secret self-identity influenced by Stieglitz, but still independent of him.

The structure of arguments. Style and tone

Every argument the author states is based on the evident information and facts. The writer of the book describes O’Keeffe’s life in detail, starting from the meeting with Stieglitz to her independent career. Analyzing an attitude of Stieglitz towards his women, especially, towards O’Keeffe, Kathleen Pyne presents her thesis, emphasizing that Stieglitz’s methods were eroticized as well as patriarchal and dominant over a woman, to some extent, One of the most important elements that support the author’s thesis is an investigation on the role of the body as an integral part of modernist methods of expression.

To express his modernist view, a human body was considered as an integral part of the personality. As a photographer, Stieglitz paid more attention to this part of the matter. When Kathleen Pyne talks about Stieglitz’s attitude towards sexuality, she indicates that his “description of woman’s essential nature” was more “like child’s than men’s”.7

However, the analysis of O’Keeffe’s life allows the author to develop a new theory of O’Keeffe’s secret self-identity, indicating that despite Stieglitz’s pressure, she was an independent woman who had he own vision of life. In this case, the author employs such a method as a conceptual analysis. In the introduction, the author suggests some points and mentions the thesis, which she supports in the main text. The author does not compare or contrast the ideas or assumptions she uses with the real facts but interprets them according to the thesis developed within the topic presented. On the other hand, neglect of such a method can be considered as the book’s shortcoming.

Although Kathleen Pyne analyzes the heroes using the examples and evidence from various sources, she could examine the opinion of different researchers and compare their reflections on this topic. Nevertheless, the general overview presented by the author is complete. The reader can view a whole picture from different sides, using the author’s arguments, to develop one’s own opinion.

The book is divided into chapters according to the different periods of life of its main characters. The author starts her analysis describing the stories of Stieglitz and Kasebier, Colam Smith, Brigman, and Rhoades and revealing their contribution to his life, work, and attitude towards the female role in modernism. One chapter is devoted to the depiction of Stieglitz’s technique of work, such as Japanese-style compositions, and the artists who influenced him, such as Whistler and Maeterlinck. However, the main part of the book is devoted to the analysis of the methods of how Stieglitz built O’Keeffe’s image of woman-child and represented her to the modernist society.

The tone of the book about its subjects and audience seems more formal than informal. The author takes mostly a neutral position of a researcher who wants to find out the main points of the characters’ relationships and the key moments of their lives. However, it is possible to notice that the writer empathizes with O’Keeffe’s individuality most of all. At the end of the book, the author says that “O’Keeffe in the New Mexico desert traced a history of struggle in solitary trees and rocks that suggests a pathos appropriate to stories of many human striving and endurance, a theme particularly reverberant of her own experience”.8

Due to the neutral and unbiased way of narration, the author does not use such techniques as sarcasm or irony. There are no emotions, judgments, or condescension. The author’s interpretation is based on bare facts from their biographies. The general tone is created by the use of various literary elements, such as syntax, word choice, and imagery. The language of the book of Kathleen Pyne is official. All the parts of this book are united by one logical structure according to the periods of life of the characters. The author does not often use imagery. However, talking about the representatives of art, Kathleen Pyne uses them to draw examples.

Thus, talking about the Stieglitz’s circle of contacts, the author mentions the “silence and musicality associated with Whistler and Maeterlinck to privilege the imagery of the “unsayable” – imagery that evoked the “blurring process” of the unconscious, of “mystery”.9 The author could not ignore the use of literary elements while writing about two persons “who had transcended the rules of bourgeois materialism and bourgeois masculinity and femininity”.10 As a result, one can find such imagery as “unsounded sea” and “abysmal bottom-growths” in the text.11

Book’s contribution to the study on American art

The most important book’s contribution is in its depiction of Georgia O’Keeffe as an independent, self-sufficient person who opened modernism for women and women for modernism. This book can be considered as an emphasis on feminist ideas and the role of women in the history of art. Investigating the relationships between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, Kathleen Pyne indicates that her study “gives these women back their voice and takes seriously their resistances”.12

Thus, a distinctive perspective the author adds to the study on American art is her view of the women’s voices as a serious opposition to the traditional attitude of the society towards female artists. For Pyne, Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most bright representatives of female modernists who created a new image of a woman in art and whose works allowed many female successors to achieve success in this traditionally male-dominated sphere. Kathleen Pyne indicates that the contribution of Georgia O’Keeffe to American art has been overlooked for a long time; however, it is impossible to overestimate her role in the life of Stieglitz and her place in the world art.

Besides, the author claims for the necessity to analyze O’Keeffe’s personality not only from the position of Freud-inflicted image of the woman-child but also taking into account her strong character and capability to resist to the influence of Stieglitz, who considered her as someone he could teach, change and transform according to his vision of the perfect modernist woman. The new way of presentation of this woman allows the contemporary readers to see new Georgia O’Keeffe as an ironic woman who significantly extended the gender field in American modernism. The readers can notice that the promotion of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz was his most successful endeavor. He never felt that he could be bored or disappointed with her. Georgia O’Keeffe was a perfect, ideal woman who could “dare to be modern”.13

For O’Keeffe who left her parents, Stieglitz was a perfect match as he could provide her with a possibility to travel, develop her creative nature, and express it in her works. Although Stieglitz had his vision of the ways O’Keeffe should have followed, they both created an amazing and productive couple, a union of two outstanding artists, who could share their ideas and perception of the world, creating the new ways of expression. This book’s contribution to the study on American art lies in this new vision of Georgia O’Keeffe as a self-identified woman who was able to resist one of the greatest representatives of modernism in art. Writing Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle, Kathleen Pyne wanted to feature Georgia O’Keeffe as a successful woman and determine her role in the world art as a female representative of modernism.

Being the witnesses of transformation and growth of O’Keeffe’s character, the readers can notice that she was not just one of many Stieglitz’s women; she was an independent and outstanding figure in the history of American art. This book helps the readers see the whole picture of the modernist society in general and one of its brightest female representatives in particular.

Reference List

Pyne, Kathleen. Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle. US: University of California Press, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. Pyne, Kathleen. Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (US: University of California Press, 2007), xxix.
  2. Pyne, xxxi.
  3. Ibid., xxix.
  4. Pyne, xxix.
  5. Ibid., xxxv.
  6. Ibid., xxxi.
  7. Pyne, 123.
  8. Pyne, 365.
  9. Pyne, 6.
  10. Ibid., xxxii.
  11. Ibid., 6.
  12. Ibid., xxxii
  13. Pyne, 123.
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IvyPanda. 2020. "Modernism and the Feminine Voice." August 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modernism-and-the-feminine-voice/.

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