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Asilk thread seams together the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the tarot, feminism, and Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer whose impresario activities in the early 20th Century promoted American modernism and the careers of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, and other innovative painters. The thread is Pamela Colman Smith, an illustrator who in 1907 had the first one-woman show at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York. Stieglitz cooked up many theories about art and sexual consciousness. Attracted by what he felt was a child’s unsullied and uncompromised awareness, he was partial to art like Colman Smith’s, whose illustrations have a fey, cozy simplicity that suggested to Stieglitz a child’s “pure” vision of things. When Colman Smith met Yeats, himself caught up in the late 19th-century Celtic revival and the rediscovery of Irish folk tales, he introduced her to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society that studied the occult. Colman Smith, in turn, designed a set of tarot cards in the decorative knights-and-maidens style of Pre-Raphaelitism, cards so often reproduced that they’re now recognizable to all of us.

You can sample Colman Smith’s art and see the exemplar of that tarot deck at Georgia O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle, an exhibition currently at the San Diego Museum of Art that features women promoted by Stieglitz. Quite apart from their quality as artists, they figured in his vision of the feminine in art and life that crystallized finally in his relationship with O’Keeffe, whose work he began sponsoring in 1916 and whom he married in 1924. The exhibition restores to our awareness artists who, though celebrated and adventurous in their time, have been eclipsed by the deep shadows thrown by the power couple. The progression of women in his life annotates Stieglitz’s changing view of the feminine in modern art and his own photographic practice.

In 1902, he headed the Photo-Secession movement, a group of American photographers who were pulling photography away from its record-keeping, information-heavy enslavement to nature and toward pictorialism, the manipulating of negatives to imitate painting, especially the mizzly, opaque effects of James McNeill Whistler. The Photo-Secessionists depicted the material world as something weightless, elided, dreamy. Gertrude Käsebier, the most celebrated female pictorialist of the early 1900s and one of Stieglitz’s first finds, handled halftones and vaporous volumes in a way that infused her pictures with refined mystery. Her subject was womanhood, specifically the woman as a self-determining but powerfully maternal creature, and her work attracted Stieglitz because at the time his notion of the feminine, as he later mentioned in a letter, concentrated on “the womb of our mother, where we are quiet and without responsibility and protected.” When his photographic and psychological views began to change around 1910, when he rejected pictorialism in favor of a harder-edged, naturalistic, straight photography, and his feminine ideal turned from the nurturing, protective mother type toward the woman-child that O’Keeffe would come to represent, he and Käsebier inevitably parted ways.

In a probing catalog essay accompanying the exhibition, Kathleen Pyne describes this new woman-child model as “a complex creation possessed of an adult sexuality, yet energized by innocence, ‘clean,’ as Stieglitz liked to say, of the guilt and secretiveness of bourgeois femininity.” If Stieglitz’s notions sound patronizing and naïve, we have to remember that artists, male and female alike, were trying to dissolve obsolescent conventions and create new ways of thinking about art and sexuality. Stieglitz read Freud and “sexologists” such as Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter, and he wanted to introduce their investigations of sexuality, gender, and the unconscious into the space where art was made.

The woman whose imagery and personal independence advanced Stieglitz’s ideas, and whose work, along with O’Keeffe’s, is the most compelling in the exhibition, is Anne Brigman, an Oakland artist who brought a western wildness and independence to the citified hothouse aesthetics of Stieglitz’s circle. I know a sexually vital middle-aged woman who says her strongest erotic feeling is for the natural order: she can experience a sustained, nearly climactic thrill just by sitting against a California live oak or standing in a grove of redwoods. Brigman visualized that feeling, an unboundaried Artemis-like bonding with the natural order that sometimes looks like struggle or strife. Brigman’s photos don’t have the playfulness of Colman Smith’s pictures, the voluptuary splashiness of O’Keeffe’s paintings, or the stateliness of Katherine Nash Rhoades’s work (another of Stieglitz’s “projects”), but she’s the boldest, most self-exposed and confessional of them all, and her photographs present a woman’s inner life in stark, raw, but harmonious images.

Her Minor, the Pain of All the World is a modernist veronica. A woman’s oval face, nearly submerged in bituminous shadow, looks like a composite of several species of sorrow. Brigman sees the feminine as a depository for the knowledge of suffering. (She went through an agonizing divorce and was emotionally torn up by her desire to express female sexuality as experienced not by the male imagination but by her own self.) In 1906 she began making nudes posed against natural settings in the Sierras, though “against” isn’t quite the word. Her models — herself, her sister, a friend — appear as fleshy grafts on trees, bending to the shape of a juniper or cedar that itself has been shaped by wind. Brigman’s Via Dolorosa is the most striking object in the exhibition. Sitting on a juniper’s twisted roots, her body surrenders itself to the tree’s striated, contorted, unpretty musculature. It’s an image of troubled desire. And in The Dying Cedar, where she strikes a “Grecian,” Isadora Duncan pose, her raised plaintive arms rhyme with the tree’s rising boughs, torment and ecstasy rushing indistinguishably one through another. In 1913, after she and Stieglitz parted ways, she made a statement about womanhood that’s really a declaration of feminist poetics: “Fear is the great chain which binds women and prevents their development, and fear is the apparently big thing which has no real foundation in life. Cast fear out of the lives of women and they can and will take their place in the scheme of mankind and in the plan of the universe as the absolute equal of man.”

From 1912 to 1916, Stieglitz mounted four exhibitions of children’s art at his 291 Gallery (so named after its address on Fifth Avenue) that reflected his increasing attraction to a new model of the feminine: the child-woman. O’Keeffe served as his prototype, and the SDMA exhibition includes his most famous photographs of her. Much more interesting than Stieglitz’s specimen photos, though, are O’Keeffe’s own pictures. Her iconic imagery, the billowing labial flower petals that swell through the picture space with an almost palpable blend of fleshiness and airiness, and the abstract landscapes with their hot reds and glassy blues racing or jagging across a horizontal pitch, are exhibited close to the earlier, “girlish” work that so attracted Stieglitz.

O’Keeffe had taught elementary school and believed that children’s frontal attack and boldness of line and color were a pure intuitive expressiveness, an unself-conscious streaming of perception and feeling. She developed in a very short time from a primitivist to the Georgia O’Keeffe whose performances elicit spectators’ oohs and aahs. In 1915 and 1916, she produced drawings and watercolors of abstract landscapes saturated in atmospherics; they owe something to the work of artists Stieglitz was exhibiting, to Rodin’s delicate washes of nudes and dancers and Arthur Dove’s auroral semiabstractions. O’Keeffe’s signature forms — vulval, tissued, aerated — were already settling into place. But in 1917 she also made an intentionally crude picture of a yellow house sided by two out-of-ratio sunflowers. It’s an homage to the children’s art she admired but also the statement of a pictorial blatancy she never wanted to give up, never would give up, even as her art became technically more refined and her theme of the sexuality of the natural order more elaborated. The house picture shares its wall with the most pleasure-giving thing in the show, a thinned-out watercolor of a red canna lily that floats on the paper as a rash, unmediated flush of sexual desire.

Georgia O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle

San Diego Museum of Art 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

Through Sunday, September 28. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.

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