"Living is such a tangle – I've only started on this – but – I'll stop." So wrote farm-born artist Georgia O'Keeffe in 1916, a few months after she had begun a correspondence with well-heeled, married photographer Alfred Stieglitz. It would continue across thousands of pages during a tumultuous and stimulating relationship which only ended with his death, 30 years later.
Their passion extended to sharing that Byronic penchant for a frequent dash, a paramount punctuation mark redolent of their restless appetite for the terrain around them. Each day brought new discovery. She regaled him with descriptions of Wisconsin, Texas and, above all, the New Mexico known by DH Lawrence. He was as attuned to the vistas that comprise Manhattan, albeit with excursions to his cherished Lake George. It was there, amid late-summer thunder and lightning, that he, 23 years her senior, took the 31-year-old's virginity in 1918.
That event was to be regularly revisited in his letters to her; and her description was as unbuttoned as his. Whatever her floral subjects, she was now no blushing violet. Indeed, the sexual stamen is a familiar feature of her work. Some have almost derided this correspondence as semi-crazed, a torrent. If taken steadily, however, the 800 large pages of My Faraway One (edited by Sarah Greenough, with a second volume to follow) are an absorbing example of the way artistic order emerges from quotidian chaos.
She writes of somebody washing up at a sink, "I always wanted to write monotonous noises like that, and I don't know how to write anything". Yet she had done so in that very paragraph, as she does across this fascinating, highly populated volume. It is full of sound, not least from Stieglitz's attempts to capture the plosives of a kiss to his remarking "– Georgia O'Keeffe – it's like a very beautiful folk melody – the sound. Georgia O'Keeffe." Add her middle name – Totto – and it might have a dash of Schoenberg.
Well produced, and keenly priced, this volume also gains from concise footnotes. As they should, they lie at the bottom of the page rather than forced into that current, misbegotten vogue for fractured narrative that is the "life in letters".
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