“For somewhere an old enmity exists between our life and that great work we do,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in “Requiem for a Friend,” a eulogy for painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died following childbirth at age 31. At the time of her death, in 1907, Modersohn-Becker was almost completely unknown in her native Germany. But within 15 years, a cult grew around the Dresden-born modernist painter. Museums and galleries around the country staged posthumous exhibitions of her work. A published collection of her letters and journals became a bestseller in 1919. She’s since become recognized as the first significant female artist to paint female nudes.
The 43 works in Paula Modersohn-Becker: Art and Life, now on view at Galerie St. Etienne, might revive some of this cultish adoration. Modersohn-Becker’s expressionistic paintings — of nursing mothers, gourds and clay jugs, female nudes, children in forests — are rendered in thick textures and a muted, earthy palette, without a shred of sentimentality or cuteness. This reductive but not unsophisticated style sought to express “the gentle vibration of things,” as Modersohn-Becker wrote in her journal. “I must strive for the utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation,” she wrote, noting the influences of Gauguin and Cezanne as well as the Egyptian mummy portraits that she saw in the Louvre’s antiquities collection. “That is where greatness lies.”
Viewed even without considering the artist’s biography, these paintings are powerful and mysterious. One portrait of a little blond girl in a floral garland manages to be haunting and ghoulish despite its wholesome subject. The strange, stylized aesthetic she developed annoyed Becker’s artistically conventional husband, painter Otto Modersohn: “Hands like spoons, noses like cobs, mouths like wounds, faces like cretins,” he wrote of her later work.
But Modersohn-Becker’s work takes on especially painful poignancy when looked at in light of her life story and early death from a postpartum embolism. The Rilke reference in the show’s title, Art and Life, asks that viewers consider this biographical context. It lends her paintings of nursing mothers, babies, and children an ominous cast and dramatic irony. While Modersohn-Becker herself didn’t see art and life as incompatible, her story is still a reminder that this struggle to balance the demands of daily existence and those of a creative calling has usually been more difficult for female artists than it is for their male counterparts.
Modersohn-Becker’s life story, like her work, is as relevant today as it was at the turn of the century. That question of whether women can “have it all” remains ubiquitous. Stories like Becker’s have plenty to do with the relative lack of women artists featured in major museum collections — something the Guerrilla Girls lamented recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Still, there’s been undeniable progress made since Becker’s time — so much that you wonder what she might have accomplished had she been born in a generation with more choices. Her last words, spoken 19 days after the birth of her daughter, sum it up: “What a pity.”
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