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A New Biography of Paula Modersohn-Becker Reveals an Artist Committed to Painting Women

Though Paula Modersohn-Becker’s name rarely appears alongside famous men in the annals of art history, she deserves her own biography, and Marie Darrieussecq has written it.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Self-Portrait in Front of a Green Background with Blue Lilies” (c. 1905) (© Paula-Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung, Bremen; all images courtesy of Semiotexte)

In the basement of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, home to one of the most famous collections of 19th- and 20th-century European painting, are the paintings of women subjects, and the paintings of women artists. In the low-ceilinged, dimly-lit room, amongst the images of mothers and children, goddesses and nymphs, situated slightly out of sight behind a television monitor, hung a self-portrait of a young woman with almond eyes and a red smile holding a branch pulled from a camellia tree. She stares out at us, determinedly, with a look of concentration on her face. The absence of her second hand suggests she is in fact in the process of painting herself. But, who is she? And why do we even need to ask?

When I Google search “Paula M. Becker,” almost every entry insists she was one of the most important figures in early Expressionism, a contemporary of men we are on last-name basis with: Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Munch. In her native Germany, her works adorn postcards, magnets, and posters. She has been heralded as the first Western woman artist to paint herself naked. She has been claimed as the first Western woman artist to paint herself pregnant. She traveled often to Paris and developed close friendships with the painter Heinrich Vogeler and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She began a series of correspondence based around a mutual admiration for the other’s art with Otto Modersohn, which lead to their marriage in 1901. And yet, her name barely appears alongside these men in the annals of art history. She deserves her own biography. Luckily, Marie Darrieussecq has written it.

The fascination with these lost characters of history, often encountered as a footnote or brief chapter in someone else’s story, can lead a writer on an incredible journey. When Darrieussecq encountered Becker’s work, used as an illustration on a flyer for a psychoanalysis symposium on motherhood, she recognized the painting but not the painter. So began her nearly five-year journey into discovering who Becker was, how she lived and what made her “be” besides her painting. Of course, there is always more to the story than just the work itself for those whose work resonates throughout decades, but often these details are locked away by more traditional biographers who have little time for details of the character’s personal lives. Darrieussecq, so taken with Becker and her celebrity-studded social circle, and wanting to understand who she was and how she came to paint the way she did, leaves no stone unturned in her quest for information on Becker.

Photograph of biographer Marie Darrieussecq (© P.O.L/Yann Diener)

The slight, 140-odd-page biography, Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, sparkles with details of Becker’s close friendships and artistic training. Darrieussecq, whose first novel Pig Tales was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 1996, brings a penchant for beautiful details nestled amongst bare sentences that provide them necessary context. Describing Becker’s daily life for example, Darrieussecq devotes her attention not to how she spent her days but what she plants in her garden, “In the garden, around the house, she has planted rose bushes, tulips, carnations, anemones.” Evoking the flurry of time passing at parties she describes their free time: “Boating parties, swimming in the rivers, Isadora Duncan-style dancing; Otto plays the flute. And nudism.” It’s the perfect use of language paired with Becker’s own economy of color and background, and attention to fine details, such as a branch or a necklace, or the three perfectly balanced flowers atop her head in her 1906 self portrait.

Becker, by Darrieussecq’s account, comes across as a resolute, bright, and curious young woman who is as diligent about her craft as she is devoted to her friends. She was sent to England to study at St John’s Wood School of Art, but at age 18, after returning to Germany and completing teacher training, while also taking painting classes in Bremen, she shunned a traditional life as a teacher. After two years at the traditional School for Women Artists in Berlin, she threw herself into the artistic community at Worpswede under the tutelage of Fritz Mackensen. It feels that it would’ve required this level of determination to push her way into the artistic circles of a group of men who would go on to be remembered in the art historical canon.

“So you died the way women used to die in the old days … the death of women in childbirth who want to close themselves up and are no longer able to.” Rilke writes in “Requiem” after Becker’s death. A greater tragedy than us not knowing her name is that, at age 31, she was snatched away from those who did. She had married the painter Otto Modersohn 6 years earlier, after many years of artistic companionship while he was with his first wife, and died, as she had, in childbirth. The first woman to paint herself pregnant did not live long enough to see the fruits of her labor.

Self-Portrait on the 6th Wedding Day (1906) © Museen Böttcherstraße

A traditional marriage was too confining for Becker, and she would often leave Modersohn for long periods to paint. At age 27, she moved alone to Paris, dividing her time between art classes, spending time with her friends, and visiting museums such as the Louvre — where, at the time, only four paintings by women artists were on display. The year of Becker’s death, Rilke writes to the sculptor Clara Westhoff of a wall at the Autumn Salon devoted to a woman artist who died young and in childbirth: Manet’s student Eva Gonzalès. Becker certainly had a profound affect on Rilke; she was a “courageous and combative” woman, he writes to her mother after Becker’s death. And, “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something … that makes one think not of any complement or limit, but only of life and reality.” He tells Franz Xaver Krappus, the young poet.

Becker’s freedom of expression and desire to live a non-conventional life, which were reflected in her work, were not always considered ground-breaking. In 1935, two of her nudes were pointed out by the Nazis as examples of degenerate art, and the museum devoted to her limited collection was denounced as promoting vulgarity. Darrieussecq views Becker’s approach to her subjects instead as liberatory: a woman painting real women, her depictions free from the desire to possess or dominate. In the writer’s view Becker is a woman painting other women as she sees them, a woman painting herself as she wants us to see her. Is it vulgar to want to depict another view of womanhood? The debate rages on today as we analyze the values applied to selfie art. How would Becker have felt about these new modes of artistic self-representation? It’s a pity we can’t ask. Months before her death, she fears her lack of artistic success is a disappointment to those around her. “It may still be a long time before I am somebody,” She wrote to Rilke. A long time indeed, this biography has been a long time coming. “Schade” was her last living word — a shame. And indeed it was, but at least she’s here now.

A year after Marie Darrieussecq ventured to the Museum Folkwang to meet with Michel Vincent, the director of the Franco-German Cultural Center of Essen, he informed her that Becker’s painting has been moved upstairs to take its place amongst the museum’s permanent collection. Like any writer who strives to resurrect the work of forgotten women geniuses, I hope this was due to Darrieussecq’s fervent interest in her subject and insistence on the importance of her work. What a delightful ray of hope, if this is so.

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