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“Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1,” 1939, by Georgia O’Keeffe (Photo: Honolulu Museum of Art)

Early in 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist most famous for depicting the arid Southwest, suddenly decided to paint America’s diametrically opposite landscape — the lush tropical valleys of Hawaii. In an era when advertisers often hired fine artists to add a touch of class to their campaigns, the “least commercial artist in the U.S.” (as Time Magazine described her) was persuaded by the Dole pineapple company to visit the remote Pacific archipelago and produce two canvases. The offer came at a critical time in O’Keeffe’s life. She was 51, her career seemed to be stalling (critics were calling her focus on New Mexico limited, and branding her desert images “a kind of mass production”), and her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz was under serious strain.

Despite initial reservations about the project, her many letters back home show that her experience of the then little-known Territory of Hawaii was a revelation. O’Keeffe ended up spending nine weeks on different islands, of which by far the most productive and vivid period was on Maui, where she was given complete freedom to explore and paint. Back on Oahu, where she had first arrived, she had been incensed that Dole officials refused to let her stay on a working pineapple plantation because it was unseemly for a woman. When they delivered to her hotel a pineapple already peeled and sliced, she tossed it out in disgust. But on Maui she was able to seek out an unfiltered view of nature, and went directly to the most remote, wild and verdant corner of the island: the port of Hana.

She reported back to Stieglitz about Hana’s dark rain forests, exuberant flora, black sand beaches and lava washed into “sharp and fantastic shapes.” Staying on the Kaeleku sugar plantation, the notoriously prickly artist was given Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation manager, as her private guide, and the two became unlikely friends; for 10 days the pair visited sea caves, ruins and beaches, and later, with Patricia’s father, made excursions to the dramatic Iao Valley and Haleakala Crater.

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Tony Perrottet
New York Times

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