Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Skull & bones society


Artist Georgia O'Keeffe on Lifetime TV

Joan Allen as Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo: Courtesy Lifetime
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The life of any successful artist who lives almost 100 years will be hard to encapsulate in a 90-minute television movie. The good news and bad news regarding Lifetime Television's Georgia O'Keeffe , which debuts a week from Saturday, Sept. 19 at 9 p.m., is that the network does not attempt full disclosure. The viewer is offered only the story of O'Keeffe's 20-year affair with photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz – and the CliffsNotes version at that. This complex and tumultuous relationship, untamed by marriage, is clarified in only the most basic terms by Michael Cristofer's teleplay.

Director Bob Balaban guides Joan Allen through the title role with Jeremy Irons assaying Stieglitz. Tyne Daly is allowed to chew Taos and Manhattan scenery with gusto in the role of libertine heiress/art collector Mable Dodge, although Dodge's bisexuality is never acknowledged.

Georgia O'Keeffe opens in 1911 when the artist confronts Stieglitz in his Manhattan gallery about the unauthorized exhibition of her paintings. Contention soon gives way to collaboration, and Stieglitz puts O'Keeffe up in a vacant New York apartment, becoming her patron, representative, lover, and muse. In a carefully calculated publicity ploy, he then gets O'Keeffe to sit for nude photographs that he shares in advance with art critics for favorable notices. O'Keeffe arrives on the opening night of the exhibition unaware that her body is the subject; she feels betrayed by Stieglitz's display of what she believed to be private images. But this sort of notoriety sells paintings, as well as photographs, and Stieglitz successfully launches O'Keeffe on the New York art scene.

As soon as Stieglitz disposes of his wife, he and O'Keeffe marry. But Stieglitz finds the allure of other women irresistible. Proponents of sexual liberation, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz find this more acceptable in concept than reality, and their union fractures. When O'Keeffe falls in love with New Mexico, their separation becomes permanent, although their artistic collaboration continues until Stieglitz dies.

As Stieglitz, Jeremy Irons brings plausible irascibility to his character and, in the end, enjoys more success than his co-star. Joan Allen's O'Keeffe is a rather wooden cipher, given to pensive stares that recall the Okie heroines of Dorothea Lange's dustbowl Depression portraits. A talented actress, Allen is not working at the top of her form here.

Other problems with the narrative coalesce around its superficiality and curiously inert tone. While Georgia O'Keeffe fails to deliver a definitive or exciting portrait of the artist, it might serve as a springboard for viewers unfamiliar with the important work that grew from the Stieglitz-O'Keeffe collaboration. A postscript at the end of the film acknowledges that O'Keeffe took up the cause of championing Stieglitz's reputation as a photographer after his death, ultimately reversing the role of artist and patron in a selfless act of posthumous payback. But despite its good intentions, Georgia O'Keeffe remains at heart a Lifetime movie.

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