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Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit examines modern art pioneer in global context

Those sensual flowers, expansive landscapes and stark buildings expressed as planes of light and dark — Georgia O'Keeffe's memorable body of work is often considered inseparable from her American heritage. But, at one time, she was in love with Canada.

New exhibit is 1st not curated by Americans: 'This is about a remarkable modern artist in the world'

The Art Gallery of Ontario's Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, opening Saturday, explores six decades of the modern art pioneer's career, including her famous flowers, Alfred Stieglitz's portraits of her and more. (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/George Eastman Museum)

Those sensual flowers, expansive landscapes and stark buildings expressed as planes of light and dark — Georgia O'Keeffe's memorable body of work is often considered inseparable from her American heritage.

And yet, she was once in love with Canada.

In 1932, already established and well-reviewed in the art world, the prairie-born modernist ventured out of the U.S. for the very first time and crossed into Quebec — on a tentative long weekend in June at first, before a lengthier sojourn beginning in August — in search of inspiring new vistas and subjects.

She'd decided to take a break from her usual summertime haunt of Lake George in upstate New York and was dazzled by the Laurentians, the St. Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula. She called it "a grand place to paint" in a letter to her partner and mentor, the photographer and modern art champion Alfred Steiglitz.

Stormy weather inspired Nature Forms - Gaspé, one of the O'Keeffe paintings that emerged from her 1932 trips to Canada. (AGO/CBC )

Still, sharing a sentiment familiar to many a snowbird, it was the weather that sent her back to the U.S. — and helped push her toward New Mexico, where she would eventually establish herself permanently.

"I would have been willing to stay on in Canada if it hadn't been so terribly cold," she declared.

O'Keeffe was an artist committed to exploring nature with a new-world approach that stepped away from the European tradition.

That 1932 trip north of the border helped recharge her artistically and the images she captured — the landscapes, crosses, barns and more — would figure into the themes she continued to explore for the rest of her life, according to Georgiana Uhlyarik of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which opens its O'Keeffe retrospective this weekend.

O'Keeffe painted White Canadian Barn II, a canvas held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in 1932 after her visit to Quebec. The canvas isn't part of the AGO show because it is too delicate to travel. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Source: Art Resource)

O'Keeffe's paintings of Canada "are very strong works and considered quite centrally," in her body of work, Uhlyarik, the AGO's associate curator of Canadian art, told CBC News this week.

"They speak to her ongoing interest in architecture and structures, but also — especially the white barns — are very much about dealing with [flat] planes."

The AGO's exhibit, the sole North American stop for the show after blockbuster runs at London's Tate Modern and the Kunstforum in Vienna, examines the prolific artist's oeuvre across six decades and tracks her back and forth between representative and abstract painting.

The show is the result of a partnership between the three galleries.

The team in Toronto began carefully mounting the show's more than 80 works in early April, 100 years after the artist's first exhibition at New York's 291 Gallery. After being shown a few of her works by a mutual friend, an impressed Stieglitz arranged the display without O'Keeffe's knowledge. She was working as a teacher at the time and only learned about it afterward.

Removing the American lens

The retrospective is the first O'Keeffe exhibition ever assembled by non-U.S. curators. 

"We do not have the baggage of feeling American," Uhlyarik said.

"We are able to look at the work in a kind of straight-up way, take her on her own fully because in the U.S., she has been so read, so written about, so thought about — but through the lens of what it means to be American. There's no denying that she's a painter from the United States… but this is about a remarkable modern artist in the world."

Perhaps best known for her florals - including, from left, 1928's Calla Lilies on Red, 1932's record-setting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 and 1927's Oriental Poppies - O'Keeffe was frustrated by the sexual interpretations some imposed on them. (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

The Toronto stop includes a canvas with a special Canadian connection: The Eggplant, the first of O'Keeffe's paintings to be sold outside the U.S. and now part of the AGO's permanent collection.

As early as the 1920s, O'Keefe was inspiring contemporaries, from Emily Carr and Lawren Harris, who collected postcards of her work in a special diary, to Doris Huestis Speirs, an artist and art patron who associated with the Group of Seven.

After a trip to New York and visit to Steiglitz's gallery, Speirs managed to convince him to sell her the painting, despite a desire by both Steiglitz and O'Keeffe for her works to remain within the U.S.

"What would have won him over was [their shared belief in] having modern art that is of this place — that is not of Europe, that is not inherited from somewhere else, but rather comes very much from here," Uhlyarik said.

The AGO was able to reframe the 1924 painting The Eggplant to O'Keeffe's original, exacting specifications thanks to notes she and her original framer had scribbled on the back of the canvas. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Defying interpretation

Though the male-dominated art establishment praised O'Keeffe as extraordinary from early on, it also imposed sexual and bodily interpretations of her work that persist to this day, something she found frustrating and limiting.

"You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don't," the strong-willed artist once said.

A modern art trailblazer, she set a host of gender-based records. She was the first woman to get a MoMA retrospective, for example, and her Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 became the world's most expensive painting by a female artist when it sold at auction for $44.4 million US in 2014.

But O'Keeffe, who died at the age of 98 in 1986, chafed at being considered through that lens. "Men put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters," she famously said.

"She's just truly a great artist," agreed Uhlyarik, adding that O'Keeffe resonates because each painting expresses something of herself.

"When you stand in front of a painting, it is like meeting another consciousness. It is like a real encounter and a real exchange with someone whose mind was extraordinary...She reveals herself in each one of them. It's like meeting a most extraordinary person in person. It's great to meet those kinds of people and be near them."

The imposing O'Keeffe spent her later years in new Mexico, inspired by its brilliant landscapes. Seen, from left, 1937's From the Faraway, Nearby, Arnold Newman's 1968 portrait of O'Keeffe and 1940's Red and Yellow Cliffs. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Arnold Newman Properties/Getty/)

Georgia O'Keeffe, featuring more than 80 works spanning six decades of the boundary-pushing artist's career, opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Saturday. It continues through July 30.