The Inspired and Revolutionary Pairing of Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore

At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the juxtaposition of the artists' works provides added depth and dimension.

‘Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore: Giants of Modern Art’ at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC Ottawa 2024 | Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

Skulls and feathers, bodies and mountains, bones and shells are highlighted against blue skies and blue walls in “Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore: Giants of Modern Art” currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). The artists are equally well-known and beloved but put them together, and their work takes on added dimensions. When you view Moore’s white curves, polished and shining, juxtaposed with O’Keeffe’s stark white bones hovering in the sky, you see both artist’s work anew. Peering under the smooth white, rounded knee of his Thin Reclining Figure to see her painting of white rounded camelia flowers and curved white antlers in Spring; or looking through the two round travertine (limestone) holes with the texture of bone in his Reclining Figure Bone to see two O’Keeffe oils, Pedernal-From the Ranch #1 and Pelvis IV, is unique and surprising.

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Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), ‘Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. III,’ 1930. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alfred Stieglitz Collection, bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe. © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Space, light, shadow and color can be sculpture. The way so many of Moore’s figures cast shadows as if another darker figure was lying beside the body are like O’Keeffe’s black shadow in In the Patio, I, with the rectangles receding as blocks of stone. Her Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 3 hangs near his tall bronze, Working Model for Upright Internal/External Form as if they were created to be together, nestling together. Moore said about this sculpture, “like the petals which enclose the stamen of a flower.”

Henry Moore (1898-1986), ‘Working Model for Upright Internal/External Form,’ 1951. The Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham, England, gift of Irina Moore, 1977. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

Curator of the exhibit, Iris Amizlev, spoke about the mutual connection the two artists had with the land. “They collected the same things: rocks, shells, bones, feathers. It was an emotional ritual for both, a way of preserving the land that means a lot to me.”

Indeed, the installation of the exhibit is emotionally rich. Sarah Tu, scenographer of MMFA and Amizlev designed the exhibition, painting each of the galleries differently to enhance the work. Upon entering the show, you see Moore’s fiberglass Knife Edge sculpture standing over five feet tall looking like a giant upright bone. On the wall is a single painting: O’Keeffe’s Horizontal Horse’s or Mule’s Skull, painted in a shell-like salmon color. The walls are painted a deep Capri Isle blue. A dramatic entrance.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), ‘Pelvis with the Distance,’ 1943. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, gift of Anne Marmon Greenleaf in memory of Caroline Marmon Fesler. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC Ottawa 2024

Moore’s and O’Keeffe’s timelines are uncanny in their synchronicities. They were both born in the late 1800s to large families. She in 1887 was one of seven children; he in 1898 was one of eight. Their first major breakthroughs were three years apart: O’Keeffe had a retrospective in 1927, and Moore exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1930. She purchased her house in the New Mexico desert and he moved from London to the countryside of Hertfordshire, both in 1940. In 1946, they each had a major retrospective at MoMA—she in May and he in December—and their first and only unrecorded meeting was during this time. They both died in 1986.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), ‘Reclining Figure Bone,’ 1975. The Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham, England, gift of the artist, 1977. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation. Photo Michel Muller

They had a way of animating their work, imbuing them with life-filled energy. Moore’s sculptures are monoliths, lying supine, elegant in repose. He said, “When I carve into the chest, I feel as if I were carving into my own.” There’s a sense of suspension as if the figure with all its heavy mass could sit up and stretch. They are alive with movement, like O’Keeffe’s shells and bones floating in a cerulean blue sky. “This is Anita Feldman’s baby,” said Amizlev. “She conceived of the idea, first organized at the San Diego Museum of Art where she is the Deputy Director of Cultural Affairs and a Henry Moore scholar.” Feldman also edited the exhibition catalogue and wrote an excellent essay.

A recreation of O’Keeffe’s studio. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC Ottawa 2024. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

In the center of the exhibition are recreations of O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch studio, and Moore’s Bourne Maquette Studio. In her studio, we see her paints and pastels, an unfinished painting on the easel and collections of stones, bones and shells. In his, there is a collection of found objects, many plaster maquettes and a large skull of a rhinoceros, given to him by the great Sir Julian Huxley from the London Zoo. The gallery walls are painted a gradient of deep brown and Film Noir, giving a feeling of ancient rock.

A recreation of Moore’s studio. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

In the last gallery, titled Landscapes of Form, the walls are painted in Peanut Brittle (sandy brown) and later in Plateau (pale green). The hues of the walls backdrop the work beautifully, offering yet another dimension to the entire exhibition. Here we view Moore’s massive elm wood Reclining Figure, nearly nine feet long, like a landscape. There are three large openings in the polished wood, through these, you can see O’Keeffe’s two oils, Black Place 1 and Black Place 11. She described the landscape in these paintings as looking like “a mile of elephants…Such a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place—part of what I call the Far Away.”

Walking around the sculptures, following along the smooth curving lines of hip, knee and thigh, the craving to touch these powerful carvings is tremendous. And then to see a deep green pair of alligator pears in oil on the wall alongside her charcoal of a banana flower is simply breathtaking. I went through the exhibition twice. Slowly.

Later, Amizlev said, ”This exhibition was a revelation on many accounts, but for me, the notion of slowing down and taking the time to look closely is an aspect that I hope resonates with the public. It is crucial to take the time to walk around Moore’s works, as well as O’Keeffe’s, because that’s how we can appreciate them to their fullest, as the angles and details change with each step that we take. This notion, of course, transcends the confines of the exhibition, into the natural world and beyond.”

Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore: Giants of Modern Art” runs through June 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The Inspired and Revolutionary Pairing of Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore