Top image: Still, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’ by Petra Collins (2016)
Having studied the work of Georgia O’Keeffe at university, Petra Collins was instantly charmed by the American modernist painter’s vivid aesthetic – a noticeable influence within her own output. Marking the Tate Modern’s new retrospective of the late American painter, the young Canadian artist has created a short film in homage to O’Keeffe’s enduring influence.
For all intents and purposes, Petra Collins’ notability is a product of the internet, so it makes sense our interview should be interjected with the tapping of a keyboard: she’s on Google reaffirming the names of her favourite pieces so to avoid a misquote. A photographer, filmmaker, Gucci campaign girl and editor/curator of last year’s Prestel publication Babe, the Canadian artist’s name is oft preceded by the title of feminist.
Tate’s posters for the exhibition highlight O’Keeffe’s infamous line, “Men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I’m one of the best painters”, highlighting the aptitude of Collins’ pairing with O’Keeffe. She alludes to this in our interview, as she reflects on the impact of the female gaze on the art world.
Zoe Whitfield: What was your introduction to Georgia O’Keeffe’s work?
Petra Collins: I guess when I was in high school I learned about her work, but when I really started loving it was when I took colour class in university, it was just really exciting – I mean I didn’t even look at them as landscapes when I first saw them – and it’s just so cool how she took something… how she took the earth and made it her own.
ZW: How did the Tate commission differ from other videos you’ve directed?
PC: Well, I mean it’s fun doing a video that is an ode to a specific artist because you’re really looking into their history and their style, and I really took that as a job, to read as much as I could around her and know sort of what her life was like. And so, I guess it’s just an extension of what I do; it’s cool doing something that’s so personal about someone you admire so much.
ZW: What do you think the female gaze adds to the project?
PC: Well, what I find really interesting is that she was hypersexualised because of those first photos with Stieglitz [O’Keefe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz]. He took all those nudes of her and then she came out with the paintings and everyone was saying that everything is so vaginal and it’s all sexual, but she was like, ‘No, these are my landscapes and they’re not sexual, they’re also mine so you can’t sexualise them.’ I thought that was really interesting and in my film I wanted to put all the girls into both her favourite landscapes, so into Lake George and then into the desert that she loved so much, and have them talking about how they relate themselves to nature and how they feel part of the landscape. For me that was the most important thing to take from it, that she had a lot of things imposed onto her; while she was trying to create her own world people would always take her world out of it.
“O’Keeffe had a lot of things imposed onto her; while she was trying to create her own world people would always take her world out of it.”
ZW: You said you did a lot of research, what was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt?
PC: I think it was that, I actually never knew… like obviously the flower paintings are very, to me they’re very vaginal, but I think that was also sort of in my mind because that’s what everyone’s impressions are of her. I just find it so interesting that she had to battle with all these people because of those images by Stieglitz.
From the River Pale, (1959). Photograph- 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: DACS, London.
ZW: The film is overlaid with O’Keeffe’s quote: “They could tell you how they painted their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me to paint mine.” How does that line resonate with your own career?
PC: Well it’s always interesting, again, being a woman in any type of industry, with any type of process, often you’re sort of undermined. I feel it’s always hard for me to gain respect because I’m always seen as the little girl, people always want to be like, “Oh you’re not a professional who’s been doing this for nine years you’re just a girl so we won’t take you seriously.” So that line just really really meant a lot to me, because it spoke a lot about the process, what she went through with her art work then.
ZW: How did you go about casting the video?
PC: It was really easy, those are all, I guess my muses. They’re all amazing, bright, talented women in different fields, so it was super easy; I’m surrounded by so many talented women and they’re all people I’ve taken photos of many times before, so it was cool to get them into a moving picture.
ZW: And do you have a favourite work by O’Keeffe?
PC: It’s hard to say because they’re just all, like if I had them I would just put them all together, but I really love that red flower one, let me find it… I think it’s Red Canna from 1923… yep it’s Red Canna. I mean I love all of them, but that one’s just like, it’s so intense.