“They could tell you how they painted their landscapes, but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine.” — Georgia O’Keeffe
On July 19th, the Tate (a network of four contemporary art museums in London) released a two-minute short film directed by Canadian photographer Petra Collins on their official Youtube channel. It opens with a girl crawling through a misty, purple desert in thigh-high leather boots. The scene is soft, and dim, and flat. Girls dressed in white stare off blankly, let ladybugs crawl across their skin, and lean on cacti. There is something comical and disturbing in the set. The desert looks like it’s made of papier-mâché — intentionally simple and toylike, as if a Beetlejuice-esque sandworm might appear at any moment. The scenery is dreamlike and the girls, glossy faced and glitter dusted, hold pensive expressions throughout. This is Collins’ re-imagining of the the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, the famed “Mother of American modernism.”
Petra Collins, though only 23, photographed for Vogue, published a book, created a line of clothing for American Apparel, and has written for the Huffington Post. Recently, Collins stepped into the world of film, with the production of her first short, “Drive Time”, in January of 2015. In this newest short film, she captures the southwestern iconography and textured style that defined O’Keeffe’s work. Collins explores the desert’s tactile dichotomy by contrasting the softness of hills, skin, and silk to the hard lines of lizards, branches, and glass. The short is not a strict retelling of O’Keeffe’s work, but rather a fusion of the late artist’s trademark subjects and Collins’ own muted, hyper-feminine visuals.
The short also incorporates aspects of O’Keeffe’s life. The most provocative shot in the film is of a rose stitched onto underwear, an allusion to the widespread belief that O’Keeffe intentionally painted flowers to look like labia. However, O’Keeffe repeatedly fought against these Freudian interpretations of her work. In an interview with Vogue, Collins examined this phenomenon by stating, “people always wanted to sexualize her, to make her work about sex, to make it about the female body. It could be, but I found it really interesting that she couldn’t paint her own landscape without people putting these connotations on it.” Through her lingering shots on shiny lips and mini skirts, Collins emphasizes the role of femininity in O’Keeffe’s work, but it is displayed as separate from (if not devoid of) eroticism. She beautifully captures the struggle of O’Keeffe, and many female artists, to be open about womanhood, while also trying to avoid sexualization.
A voiceover plays throughout the film, helping develop its complex thematic elements. First, O’Keeffe’s voice discusses the unteachability of art. A girl’s voice then filters in, over the sounds of breaking glass and running water, musing about the connection between bodies and landscapes. Different voices thread throughout, often repeating one of O’Keeffe’s most famous quotes, “they could tell you how they painted their landscapes, but they couldn’t tell me to paint mine.” With the girls echoing this sentiment, it seems to serve as a mantra, a monument to individualism. The piece is hopeful, a pastel-clad encouragement, pleading the audience to explore their own intrinsic artistry.