Paula Modersohn-Becker: “Woman Painter”

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“What I feel inside myself is like a fine web, a vibrating, a beating wing, a trembling repose, a holding of my breath. Once I can paint, I will paint this.”

Paula Modersohn-Becker was a contemporary of Matisse, of Kirchner and Picasso, of the great modernist painters working in Berlin and in Paris. And yet for a very long time she has remained obscure. She was not recognized in her own time — she died in her early 30s after giving birth to her first child — but what she did paint in her short life was radical and new. She painted women’s bodies. Not in the way that her male contemporaries did, but in the way women like Frida Kahlo would, and she created art in the way that Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta and Claude Cahun would, by exploring the self and the female figure and using her own image to examine the place of women in the world and in society.

Her life story, explored in a volume of her letters published in German in the years after her death, also illuminates the role of the woman as artist, as mother, as wife, and as creator. She was married to a painter, but she left him and his daughter to move to Paris to make a go of being a painter full time. She longed for a child of her own, but she was strongly ambivalent about the role of the mother and how it would interrupt her work. Her letters explore these ambivalences and ambiguities in a bright and alert manner. Her charm comes through, and her story remains highly relatable to women trying to decide between ambition and motherhood, or trying to gain respect and reputation in a critical establishment that denigrates, or ignores, women’s work.

Diane Radycki’s Paula Modersohn-Becker explores all of these pressures on the female artist’s life at the turn of the century, and the way modernism has been defined as masculine. She also brings Modersohn-Becker more fully to life, adding a darker tone to the relentlessly cheerful letters she sent home to worried parents. And the paintings and sketches are all beautifully reproduced, introducing us all to this important and beautiful painter.

I spoke with Radycki over the phone about her subject, and what Modersohn-Becker has to say to the female creator of today.

My first exposure to Paula Modersohn-Becker wasn’t with her artwork, but with her journals and her letters, which you edited and translated. It’s rare to read an artist who can write coherently and expressively about her work, and about the particular frustrations with the artist’s life. What was your first exposure to her work?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Selfbildnis mit Modell

It was an in undergraduate art history class. At the time, back at the University of Illinois, the class was being taught by a painter who had seen her work in Germany and was himself surprised by it, taken by it, moved by it, and brought it into the class. What he told us was that there was nothing in English about her, and as he couldn’t read German there was nothing he could tell us about it except that chronologically she fit in with the German Expressionists. Everything I saw of her, any pictures, looked so different from German Expressionism that it just didn’t work. It left me with a lot of questions about her, what was she doing? She seemed to be stuck in a place where she didn’t belong. Later, I was very surprised there was nothing more done on her. I translated those letters and diaries, thinking it might jump start some work on her. It did, but more in England than in the States. I thought when it was time to do a PhD thesis that I would do that — the criticism of her, but it kept misplacing her. If she had no true place, no authentic place in art history, that might account for the fact that she remains unknown or resistant to any understanding of her place in art history.

What I was shown, the Self-Portrait Nude with Amber Necklace, and I think the slide that came up right before was that Kirchner self-portrait, where he’s got that incredibly bold striped robe on, and the model is cowering in the back, and he’s looking very lascivious. And I was thinking, “What was that? If that defines German Expressionism, what does that have to do with her?” How do you put those two things together? Well, you don’t. It took the 20th century and the rise of women’s artists exploring their bodies, their lives, the female nude from an entirely different perspective, for me to understand exactly what she did and what she had pioneered. It was something no one could understand at the time.

Do you think part of the reason she remained obscure is because she didn’t fit in with her time, or what has come to define that era for us?

I think the second is really true. In the end, I think I have to say she was so in advance with what would happen with female imagery and the challenge to traditional imagery. Turn of the century and everyone is so excited about making modernism. But what we’re really looking at is male interpretations, formal interpretations. What she hit on wouldn’t really be understood or advanced in any way for generations to come. The next woman to use her body in any meaningful way was Frida Kahlo, and Frida Kahlo was born the year Modersohn-Becker dies. The women we look at in art history, none of them took on the female body as a subject matter. The wonderful women of the ’20s, Jeanne Mammen and Sonia Delaunay, they did not explore that imagery either. After World War I, that was when her reputation began to rise in Germany. When the war so affected everybody that there was a really different audience, no one would have been able to see what was to come after her, but when they looked at her, when they really were war weary and very skeptical of authority, here she is, challenging authority, traditions, conventions. They saw it. In Germany at least, that’s the beginning of her reputation. And the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, that is the first museum dedicated to a woman artist. I honestly think her time is coming now. But it did take the women’s movement and women’s imagery.

The diaries and letters that have become a way to introduce her to the public, because they are so lively and they are so charismatic, you write that they give a very skewed view of her life. And even her friends the Rilkes objected to the publication of her letters, because they leave out all of the hardship and suffering.

Jeanne Mammen, Langweilige Puppen (Boring Dolls)

All you need to do is put yourself in her place, because most of these letters were letters home. What are you writing your mom and dad about your life? You’re telling them about your real struggles? Mom and dad and brothers and sisters and people in Bremen. They were the ones who wanted to advance her reputation for her, they were the ones who promoted the publication of her letters and diaries. But it was from materials they had, and it was a dutiful wife and mother and daughter that they knew. But they didn’t know all of her. And that’s what Rilke objected to. Later Rilke does say in a letter in the ’20s that he reread that volume and said maybe he was wrong. Maybe the charm of her has its own worth. It’s true, a woman wanting to respond to the love and expectations of family, besides an internal struggle. That too up until the 1920s, that too kind of crimped what our idea was of her.

In a lot of ways, the struggles she goes through are these universal struggles women creators still go through: wanting to have children but knowing what that can do to your career, the establishment of teacher and critics are still dominated by men. One doesn’t want to turn her into a feminist archetype, but the fact that she was so torn about having children and that is ultimately what kills her, giving birth, it’s a very feminist narrative she played out.

I wouldn’t say giving birth killed her, it was state of medicine at the turn of the century that killed her. This idea of sequestering pregnant women so they shouldn’t go out and you shouldn’t see them. Pregnancy was a kind of illness. Don’t exercise! Don’t move around! That killed her. She wouldn’t have died now. She was 31, first child at 31, and that was very dangerous at the turn of the century. Today, you could have your first child at 41, we know other things about the female body.

I really wanted to respect her, from where she was coming. She knew about feminism, obviously there were feminist movements there in Germany. One of her aunts was active in feminism. Her real focus was on art and creativity. Certainly she realized how difficult it was being on her own, without financial wherewithal when she went to Paris. Virginia Woolf says “money and a room of one’s own,” and she says money first. Most of us just look at the title, A Room of One’s Own. I really believe it was money and loneliness that undid her. There wasn’t anybody, she didn’t have a female friend in Paris who understood what she was doing. Some of the men could see they were looking at things they hadn’t seen before. But they weren’t feminists, and they couldn’t offer her the kind of friendship that we now all have created for ourselves. Those things weighed on her.

The loneliness really came through. She was there, by herself, she had left her husband, and that was a daring thing to do. What was the art scene in Paris like for women artists? What was the support system for a woman like her?

Marie Laurencin, Bacante

It’s 1906, it’s 1907, it’s Picasso. In Germany it is Kirchner and in Paris it’s Matisse. 1905 is going to be the Fauves. But can you name a woman? Marie Laurencin? She does remarkable things, but she has yet to be taken with any seriousness. I found exhibition catalogues for her that included images that we don’t associate with her. Lesbian flirtations and there’s an image of women behind the veils of contemporary fashion. Fashionable hats that she’s labeling The CageThe Prison. Everyone’s looking at the prettiness of her, and the titles have somehow disappeared. There’s a wonderful image she does, perhaps the only one I’ve seen in the early 20th century, and there’s a woman with a black eye. A beautiful woman who has been abused, and hit.

As far as I know, Paula had no female support. Her friend Clara Westhoff happened to be in Germany at the time. Rilke was there and then not there. There is her sister, for a while, but as you come to read what her sister’s correspondence with other family members is, you can see she’s on the side of the family. “I’ve lost a sister, I’ve lost a daughter. Here stands a painter willing to turn her back on all of us.” She loves her still, but her sister is conflicted, and her sister is not an artist and so there’s no understanding there. She took advantage of a husband who loved her and missed her and said, “Send me money.” Every other letter to him she says, well, if you really do care, send money. She came to marriage with money, but the money goes to him. When she left she was so desperate she would not allow that reality to interfere. She just escaped, and then she had to deal with it.

Another thing we don’t know is why she went back to her husband. There’s that blank spot. Do you have any ideas of what that decision was, other than exhaustion from trying to make it on her own?

It’s hard to know when one’s not inside a marriage. She leaves it in desperation and frustration. When she does the turn-about and goes back home, she’s looking for relief from the poverty and loneliness in Paris. Why she would think the marriage would work now when it didn’t work for her before, that’s always a good question. The little bit of facts that we know, she’s conflicted, she’s writing her older sister who’s married, she writes about how she does not want to go back to him. What the family knows that she seems not to know, is that her one confidante, the sculptor Bernard Hoetger, and she thinks he’s totally on her side, and it’s revealed that through the younger sister, he gets put in touch with [Paula’s] husband. So when she approaches the Hoetgers with her problems, she doesn’t know that he’s already aware of them. She’s expecting support for going forward as an artist, because he’s been very supportive. And she’s ecstatic that someone finally sees what she’s doing. What she doesn’t realize is that he has dual loyalties. He’s got loyalties to his art and to his manhood. And he identifies with the husband. A German woman, a German wife does not leave a husband and a step-child. What we do know is that she spent a long evening with her, and her word is that he “preached” at her, or “harangued” her. And he really threw her off base.

I would guess, and do not record this at all as fact, but I would guess that he was sensitive to how devoted she was to her art, and I would put money on the belief that he thought she could go forward with her art in the way she wanted to, in terms of needing support herself. And here was this husband who loved her and missed her and through it all was sending money. And he was saying, I would guess, this is the best way to go forward. This is Plan B. The next letter to that sister in Frankfurt said, well, I’m going back. And her letters to her husband never explained. She said, well, I spent the evening with Hoetger and he talked me into this, so, okay, you can come. That’s it. She didn’t explain to anyone. Boy, the beauty of her! Women still feel they have to go through life apologizing. Not her!

You know, let’s give it to her. Let’s not end that story there with her defeat. She looked at what her options were, and she decided on that one. There was no indication that she wasn’t thinking about how to make it work. There’s a letter to Rilke after she’s returned to her husband, saying, I’m thinking about going to Italy. She is going to make this work for her. If I were strategic, I would say to you, she realizes how much she means to him. She’s not coming back with her tail between her legs. If you want me back, these are my terms. And he wants her back. He was of a different aesthetic, but he was talented and he recognized that she was a genius. He thought he was marrying an art student, a bit of an adoring fan, and son of a gun, he married a genius. He was up for it! He didn’t want Paris, but he loved her.

She did have supportive men, around her. Her father treated her like she was not an idiot. He was supportive in his way. And the husband saw her talent. Her male friends saw her talent. It’s heartening, reading about that.

The Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Woolf has that artist haunted by that phrase, “Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” One can only assume that’s what Woolf felt, too. Never did Modersohn-Becker feel that. Never did she feel she couldn’t paint. She could paint. It just took the world a lot of time to catch up with her.

Image: Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait (Semi-Nude with Amber Necklace and Flowers II)