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Interview with Curator Sarah Greenough: When Alfred Met Georgia

My Faraway One

Read what art's most famous couple wrote one another, in My Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The book's editor, Sarah Greenough, offers a scholarly peep.

"At last, a woman on paper!" photographer Alfred Stieglitz enthused when, in 1916, he was presented with the drawings and watercolors of Georgia O'Keeffe. Exhibiting her work several months later in his famous 291 gallery, he launched her star. But art wasn't all he was to see of O'Keeffe's output on pulp.

The two would swap some 5,000 letters during their three-decade correspondence, which had already begun in 1915. Stieglitz was in his early 50s, married and considered nobility on the New York art scene. She was in her mid-20s and little known outside the farflung campuses where she taught art. Today they'd be texting with r's and u's. As if meant to make us nostalgic, their letters sometimes swelled to 40 pages.

National Gallery of Art photography curator Sarah Greenough has quarried 650 of these letters to yield My Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933 (Yale University Press, 2011). The 800-page book is as big as a cow skull.

O’Keeffe had tapped Greenough to edit her hand-scrawled trove, with the stipulation that it remain sealed for two decades after her death. The wait ended in 2006. Greenough had first met O’Keeffe while working on her dissertation about Stieglitz's iconic photography. In addition to having mounted exhibitions of his work at the National Gallery of Art, Greenough is the author of Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, among other critically admired books.

My Faraway One encapsulates the two artists' insights into the cardinal players and ideas of early American modernism. But more than anything it's a collection of love letters from two creative souls who enthralled and inspired one another — when they weren't rankling one another's nerves. They married in 1924, shortly after Stieglitz's divorce.

In the beginning, O’Keeffe seems quite the wide-eyed ingenue swept up by art's alpha male. Stieglitz had charm -- and self-regard -- to spare, and put much of it toward wooing the woman artist he deemed on a par wtih the likes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Constantin Brancusi, among other European novas whose work he had debuted in America.

Yet fault lines emerged to rock the romance. Partly in order to claim time and space to paint, and partly just to breathe freely, O'Keeffe sought refuge elsewhere. In 1929 she visited New Mexico. Lured by the natural and intellectual light, intensified by such forces as D.H. Lawrence, she would soon summer every year in the dessert highlands around Taos.

The letters give glimpses into their agonies and ecstasies.

In July 1929, O'Keeffe writes, "I seemed to be in the world only for you--But I must be here a while yet...I cannot be of any use to you unless I can grow much myself and every day I feel more and more on the earth..."

Stieglitz replies, "...I am the loser--the one weakened..." Another letter from that month finds him lamenting, "Our parting as we did--both inwardly crying for love...your steeling yourself, your letters not those of former years--my bleeding to death by inches..."

A little over a decade earlier, O'Keeffe had rhapsodized, "...can I stand it--the terrible fineness and beauty of the intensity of you...lying here--wanting you with such an all [over] ache--not just wanting--loving--feeling--all the parts of my body touched and kissed--conscious of you--A volcano is nothing to it..."

And Stieglitz had smoldered, "To wake up at daybreak & lie here in bed & feel that there is the loveliest someone on earth not so far away waiting--feeling like I do--Two beings so full of the same feelings for each other--Converging into a focus--a complete oneness--"

To put the two artists' outpourings in context, spoke with Greenough.

Q: What was O'Keeffe like, and how did the letters compare with the person?okeeffe-stiegliz

A: She was really quite extraordinary. One of the things that most surprised me is that I had come to know her through Stieglitz´s photographs that he had made 50, 60 years earlier. And in those photographs there´s very little sense of humor. In real life she had a marvelous, dry wit and a twinkle in her eyes. So there was a huge difference between the person that I saw and the person I had expected to see from Stieglitz's pictures.

Q: Why do you think he played down her lighter side?

A: He began to photograph her in 1918, when they were passionately in love. She was an extraordinarily sensual, sexual human being who excited him down to the end of his fingertips, and it's that sexuality that comes through his photographs of her. His most well known photographs are the monumental nudes that he took of her. There are a few snapshots where he got her sense of humor and that twinkle, but they´re very few and far between.

Q: How did his fixation on her as a female artist morph into his fixation on her as the object of his affections?

A: When Stieglitz first discovered O'Keeffe in 1916, he had been fascinated with women´s art for a long time. He had an understanding of women that had been clouded by the literature of (German writer) Goethe or (British socialist philosopher) Edward Carpenter and others who saw women as fundamentally less cerebral and intellectual than men and more emotional and intuitive. Stieglitz felt that a woman´s art would be more subjective and an expression of pure emotion.

Q: How did O'Keeffe fit in with his theory?

A: He seemed to find verification of those ideas with O'Keeffe. At first he was more focused on her as an artist. But he was also fascinated that she lived in Texas and wanted to make others believe she was a product of American soil uninfluenced by European artists.

Q: Was she?

A: It was not true, since he was sending her the latest artistic publications of the time.

Q: Her writing has an earthy quality he must have also adored. How did their styles differ?

A: He fell in love with the way that she expressed herself not only though her art but also through her words. O'Keeffe was a very idiosyncratic writer. She couldn´t spell at all: "before" was always spelled "befor." Stieglitz wrote in regular sentences that could pass for prose. O'Keeffe had a more elliptical way of writing. She would frequently write a phrase and follow it with several squiggles and then drop down several lines. It almost seems that she was trying to sketch out her ideas as much as writing them. Her style was far more fractured and impressionistic than Stieglitz's.

Q: And all those breathy dashes! What's that about?

A: What´s fascinating about the letters is that they contain almost no passages or words that have been crossed out. They both just sat down and wrote whatever came into their minds. They clearly didn't have an agenda; it's all very stream-of-consciousness. That´s what gives them their extraordinary immediacy. It's almost as if you´re listening in on a conversation between the two of them.

Q: Which adjectives spring to mind to describe their letters?

A: Passionate, lyrical, fervent, lucid, immediate, unfiltered, spontaneous, lush. Or as one friend of mine has said, very hot.

Q: What do the letters tell us about their creative lives?

A: Stieglitz's importance as a major force in art and culture in the first half of the 20th century is unquestionable. The letters show how intimately involved he was in many of the key artistic discussions of the time. And from O'Keeffe there are minute-by-minute details about creating her paintings. In 1929 she talks about seeing a subject and going back to paint it again and again till she gets it right. For example, she wrote letters about a painting that is now known as "The Lawrence Tree," which she painted while visiting the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in New Mexico.

Q: To what extent was New Mexico also an escape from Stieglitz?

A: Between 1929 and 1946, she went out to New Mexico and spent two or three months there every summer, but she always returned to live with Stieglitz for the fall, winter and spring months. By the late '20s she had begun to feel that she needed something that Stieglitz and the East Coast couldn't provide her. She was increasingly frustrated with the routine, and with the suffocating atmosphere of Stieglitz's family home at Lake George in the Adirondacks. She wanted to travel. She also wanted very much to have a home of her own. Stieglitz didn't want to buy a house just for the two of them; he wanted to continue spending summers at Lake George with his family.

Q: In July 1929 she wrote, "...when I think of Lake George it just seems to take all the breath out of my body." What did New Mexico have that the Adirondacks didn't?

A: When O'Keefe first went to New Mexico, the driving motivation was that she needed to find new inspirations for her art. She had loved living in Texas in 1916 and '17 and had heard stories about New Mexico from other people and knew it was a place she wanted to explore more. She hoped to find things that would revitalize her art.

Q: Such as?

A: In 1929 she writes eloquently about how she´s trying to find something out in the New Mexico landscape, something that symbolizes her feeling about it. She´s talklng about trying to find objects that express her love and fascination with the New Mexican landscape: the colors, the light and the intensity of the life that she found there.

Q: What toll did her absence take on their relationship?

A: When O'Keeffe began to spend time in New Mexico in 1929, Stieglitz turned his affections to another woman, Dorothy Norman, who was a much younger woman whom he had met at his gallery. This was what really caused a major rift in the relationship in the early '30s.

Q: You have this interesting footnote about Stieglitz apparently sending O'Keeffe a letter where Norman confessed to being "a little naughty." Meanwhile, in the letter you're referring to, he reminds her that she's "free." But he also pours out his passion for O'Keeffe.

A: Biographers have recognized about Stieglitz that he was an immensely charismatic individual with a capacity to profoundly affect people. But Stieglitz's egotism and narcissism have never been understood to the extent that they appear in these letters. By the '30s you see how duplicitous he was with O'Keeffe as he was conducting his affair with Dorothy Norman. I don't believe this was ever seen before. You see how he conducted the affair in a very public way. Neither Norman nor Stieglitz tried to conceal it from O'Keeffe or from Norman´s husband. They felt their relationship made them much better people, that it enriched those around them.

Stieglitz needed people around to bolster his ego. O'Keeffe on the other hand was a far more independent person and needed that space. So there was an inherent tension in their relationship that they both struggled with in the '20s.

Q: How did their ethnic and socioeconomic differences come into play?

A: One of the things that attracted Stieglitz and O'Keeffe were their differences. Stieglitz was from a large, secular German-Jewish family in New York. O'Keeffe's early life had been far more of a "hard-scrabble," Midwestern farm existence and in a family that was by no means as close-knit as Stieglitz's. The very fact that O'Keeffe was not a pampered New Yorker, like [Stieglitz's first wife] Emmeline Obermeyer, had been; that she had made her way in the world and had a real job to support herself, something that Stieglitz never did; and also that she was dry, witty and acerbic, not verbose and theatrical, like members of the Stieglitz family; all of these things appealed to Stieglitz immensely. 

Q: Yet their backgrounds also posed a challenge, no?

A: In his letters to Norman, Stieglitz lovingly calls her his "Little Jewess," and contrasts her with O'Keeffe, whom he coldly referred to as "Southwest" and said she--presumably with her Midwestern or Southwestern heritage-- just didn't understand him. Stieglitz was not devout--in fact, for much of his life, there is no record that he ever went to a synagogue--but I think [his Jewishness] is important to understanding him and his activities.

Q: O'Keeffe wanted to have children. Why was he so opposed?

A: Stieglitz felt that O'Keeffe's paintings were in a sense their children. He felt that if she had a child, it would divert her attention from her art. Also, Stieglitz had a daughter who had been diagnosed with what we now know as schizophrenia. He feared he had a genetic defect. So children was another bone of contention.

Q: Today Georgia O'Keeffe is a more recognizable name than Alfred Stieglitz. Does the book serve to recoup some of his fame?

A: During their lifetime Stieglitz was the far better known of the two. His galleries and Camera Work journal and what they did to foster the careers of artists like John Marin, Mardsen Hartley, Arthur Dove... that was critically important. I think the letters put them both back on an equal footing.

Q: Can we consider My Faraway One a cache of love letters?

A: What´s important about the letters is that they're an amazing source of information on early 20th-century art and culture. Yet even more than that, they are an exceptional record of the evolution of a relationship between two intensely committed, passionate individuals. In their letters you see them falling in love; you see their intense passion in the '20s; and then you see the relationship almost fall apart in the early '30s.

Q: What are you planning for an encore?

A: Volume Two will pick up in 1934 and continue to 1946, when Stieglitz died. We´re hoping to have it out in 2014.


Eyes Wide Open: Interview with Haim Tabakman

The tent protests that have swept Israel this summer have made unlikely bedfellows out of secular and ultra-religious activists confronting similar social issues. Gay rights are no such matchmaker, however, as seen in last month's Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the sizeable counter-protest it spawned in that city's ultra-Orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood. (Last year the black-frocked Deputy Mayor brandished cardboard donkeys to condemn the “bestial” nature of the paraders.)

What underlies such peeve and proscription comes under scrutiny in the Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Widely opened eyes are advised to catch the symbolic code that director Haim Tabakman lays down in scene one for the film’s unfolding emotional and spiritual terrain.

Enter rain-soaked Aaron (Zohar Strauss), an ultra-Orthodox man who smashes the chains of a Jerusalem butcher shop he has recently inherited from his dead father. So much for inherited traditions. Inside this tomb of a store it’s all animal flesh and blades. Aaron starts in on his food preps when carnality in the form of a young man (Ran Danker) materializes, seeking dry shelter and work. Aaron shows Ezri the door, but later softens when he sees the supposed yeshiva student sleeping in the synagogue.

The devoted husband, father of four and respected community member invites Ezri to apprentice at the shop and stay upstairs while seeking a place of his own. Manly meat and water rituals will soon test Aaron's religious devotion. Sensuality does not keep kosher.

In defense of self-gratification, Aaron utters, "I was dead before. Now I'm alive.” However, such a betrayal promises banishment or worse. What of our natures should we sacrifice and suppress? What are the costs of being authentic? Where do we draw the line between judgment and understanding, repression and respect?

Tabakman's powerful yet restrained drama, based on a script by Merav Doster, raises questions that are as essential to secular viewers as to the devout souls portrayed onscreen. Film Festival Traveler reached Tabakman in Tel Aviv to parse meanings and shoptalk about his debut feature that was nominated for an award by the Un Certain Regard section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Q: Passion threatens to wreck everything Aaron has built. Is it a positive force to be nurtured or negative force to be overcome?

A: It's both. Passion is destructive, but it also builds and gives force. I recently came across something by (German author) Thomas Mann, that there's the trivial truth -- the opposite of which is a lie or an untruth -- and the deep truth, whose opposite is also true. So 2 + 2 = 4 is a simple truth. But religion is both the most meaningful way to live your life and the first thing that inhibits you from achieving your inner self that's also true."

Q: A complex truth...

A: Yeah. One of the puzzles that Aaron cracks is, Why did God make me like this? Every creation of God is special. When you battle for your belief you come alive. I'm heterosexual, so it's very easy for me not to be attracted to other men. But Aaron comes to the conclusion that being gay is what makes him special. It's a tool for him to fulfill his special identity. For that he needs temptation to be close to him. If your refrigerator has only milk and no meat, there's no challenge. But if you have this delicious cheese near your hamburger, you have to work on it a bit. Aaron understands that to make his passion grow and to overcome it, he has to keep sin -- Ezri -- close to him. Just as there are commands written for Kohanim (priests), he understands that the biblical command against homosexuality is written for people like him. Only people who have that are working God. Aaron fails, of course. but this is the hypothesis that he's working on.

Q: Aaron has a sense that he has missed his life. Does he ever expect to become who he is?

A: The deep truth is very paradoxical. The truth is that he wants to live with Ezri, but the truth is also that he wants to be a religious man. What's the bigger truth? He doesn't know.

Q: Is homosexuality more accepted in the ultra-Orthodox community today than when you shot the film?

A: One of the definitions of ultra-Orthodox society is not letting the new come inside. But nothing can be so rigid. Today I was at the public library to research a new script I´m writing, and there was an ultra-Orthodox guy with Robert McKee's book on screenwriting, together with screenwriting notes. So evolution is very slow but it happens. On the other end, there are certain things that cannot be changed, and one of these things is the text of the Scriptures. In the Bible it's written very clearly that if you prefer the same sex, you should be sentenced to death.

Q: What recourse can a homosexual religious person have if they want to be a part of the community?

A: When I researched the film, I talked to ultra-Orthodox people who were gay and who were meeting their lovers in Tel Aviv. Sometimes these were not really relationships but just encounters. They would not have an orgasm, and this would be their interpretation of not having sex. Others would perform everything but penetration. This may sound very crooked and very wierd, but people are trying to make an accommodation.

Q: Would this pass muster with the moral minders?

A: Sin happens. Homosexuality is not accepted as a tendency in nature but rather as an urge. If you feel you are attracted to another man, you can fight it. The rabbis and all the top religious establishment don't recognize that it's something natural that you are. They will send you to a psychiatrist. Sin is very acceptable in Judaism. There's something in the Scriptures and the G'marra that says if sin overcomes you and you feel your urges are overwhelming, go to a city where nobody knows you and wear black and repent. "Hazara be-tshuva" (return to faith) or reconciling your sins is very big in Judaism. King David was a big sinner. Judaism doesn't want to eliminate you; it's just that you have to overcome your sins. You should take a big breath, come back home and concentrate on coming back to your home and your wife.

Q: And if that doesn't do the trick?

A: Homosexuality is one of the few sins that are punishable by death as written in the Torah. If Israel were a religious state like Iran, maybe someone would enforce this. We are not a religious state and we don't follow the laws of the Torah like that, so nobody is getting executed.

Q: The Orthodox-themed film Ushpizin was made with the support of the community. Did you collaborate with any local residents?

A: Ushpizin is another kind of film and in the end it's not so subversive. My film is more problematic. The only peope who collaborated with me were those who left the community or those who were living a fake life from within the community and wanted to their keep family together. They would give me their stories and talk with me about their lives and how they felt.

Q: What was it like to shoot on location in Mea Shearim?

A: Guerrilla style and not so easy...we got chased out. We got some stones on our car and other people coming to us saying, Get out of here. We also built a location in Jaffa that looked like Mea Shearim, just to have the air of the neighborhood.

Q: How was the film received by ultra-Orthodox Israelis?

A: The religious community doesn't go to see films, but they get the Internet and they can download. Some were very positive and some were very angry. I tried to be fair and gentle about all the subjects. It's not really about finger pointing and it's not so sensational. So it wasn't about exploring religious life, but rather about exploring myself. In the end it was a very personal story.

Q: In what way did you draw on your own experience?

A: My psychological compass for dealing with this story was very personal. I wanted to portray things that I knew from my life. Passion, loneliness, not living the life you want to; I'm afraid of living my true self. In any kind of relationship with your work or your spouse, the rules are sometimes killing your passion, but they are also what define us and what we are dependent on. Sometimes you have to betray the rules to find yourself.

Q: Israel is both a very open and very closed society. What are the roots of this polarity, and how do they affect gender identity?

A: We came from all kinds of places in the world -- for some it's 10 years ago and for others it's 30 years ago and still others have been living here for hundreds of years -- but it's a young country. The consequences are that it's very interesting to live here. We have a lot of stories but the future is very uncertain and there are a lot of questions about how Israel will live in the future. No one really can give an answer about what will be. It's not only us against the Arabs but us against ourselves.

Q: What responses have audiences had to the decisions of Rivka, Aaron's wife?

A: I relate to responses that are close to what I have in mind: that they admire her way of not reacting hysterically or violently or other clichés of the betrayed party to a love triangle who an is angry and vindictive woman. She is not saying all kinds of harsh things, but rather responds in a mature, tentative and thoughtful way.

Q: How risky was it for teen idol/singer Ran Danker and popular actor Zohar Strauss to take on this taboo subject?

A: Basically the only thing Ran Danker was more afraid of than portraying a gay ultra-Orthodox was being stuck in a teenage idol rut. He wanted to grow. I don't know that it was any risk at all for Zohar Strauss, who saw it as an acting challenge.

Q: What films were you inspired by in telling this story?

A: There are a lot of influences. I cannot really say one thing, but I really like a lot of genres. I like minimalism and also maximalism. I like quiet films like (Robert) Bresson's and the complex, ironic films of the Coen Brothers. I like Asian cinema, old and new cinema. I'm a product of all kinds of films.

Q: In Eyes Wide Open, a stranger comes to town and rattles everything. Is it a Middle Eastern Western?

A: I was thinking about Westerns, but not exclusively.

Q: What can you tell us about that script you're writing?

A: One tiny hint: it's very similar but very different.

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai: Interview with Lu Win


A Jewish Girl In ShanghaiA Jewish Girl in Shanghai is both the title of China's first homespun Jewish film and a quick history lesson.

Who knew Jews of any gender existed in Shanghai? Apparently not many Chinese citizens. At least not until the animated film based on Wu Lin's graphic novel opened in theaters across China in May 2009.

Now Lin is making a sequel to extend the course. More about The Secrets of the Necklace (working title) in a bit. Meanwhile...

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai tells the story of Shanghai’s Hongkou district, where more than 30,000 Jews sought refuge from Nazi-occupied Europe. In particular it tracks the saga of Rina, who fled there from Poland with her younger brother Mishalli. Their wartime adventures with a Chinese pancake seller named Zhou A-Gen set the scenario for exploring friendship between Chinese and Jewish children.

Read more: A Jewish Girl in Shanghai:...

Kevin's July '11 Digital Week I

BlackBlu-rays of the Week

Black Moon and Zazie dans le metro

Two of Louis Malle’s more experimental films are given typically excellent Criterion releases. 1975’s Black Moon, his surrealist take on Alice in Wonderland, is enlivened by Sven Nykvist’s usual sumptuous photography, while Zazie dans le metro, a 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s supposedly unfilmable novel, has Zaziea freeform style that fit in well with the then-emerging New Wave.

Malle, whose eclectic career was cut short by cancer at age 63, took on any project and made it his own. Both movies have a sumptuous “sparkle” on Blu-ray; extras include vintage Malle interviews on both releases and additional interviews and a video piece on Zazie.

Ceremony (Magnolia)
Writer-director Max Winkler’s young protagonist, still in love with his Ceremonyolder ex, decides to crash her upcoming wedding to see if there‘s anything still there between them. Although the attractive, talented cast (Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Lee Pace, Reece Thompson) make the characters believably confused, Winkler is unable to make Ceremony more than intermittently clever and charming. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, extended scene, making-of featurettes and behind-the-scenes footage.

Read more: Kevin's July '11 Digital Week I

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