Detail from Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother and Child. Wikimedia images

Being Here: the bold artistic vision and short life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

In a recent exhibition at the NSW art gallery, Making Modernism, Margaret Preston’s portrait Flapper (1925) is described as “a painting of great directness and confidence”. Yet at the time Preston was painting, the Australian artist’s work was considered “too progressive for public taste” and Flapper was dismissed as “harsh and ugly”.

With her distinctly personal and modern take on landscapes, “appetising still lifes as interesting as loves” – and portraiture, German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker shares an aesthetic consciousness with Preston. Like Preston, Modersohn-Becker’s works entail bold lines and colours and convey an artistic vigour combined with a simplicity that is startlingly intimate.

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Self-portrait as half-length figure facing left, holding a bowl and a glass, circa 1905.

Like Preston, she was a woman before her time. She sold just three paintings while she was alive. Her husband, artist Otto Modersohn, admired them, but few people understood them. Her nudes were unlike anything seen before in the art world.

Born in Germany in 1876, Modersohn-Becker painted during a period when art drew its stylistic innovations from an “erotically based assault on the female form”, as art historian Whitney Chadwick once wrote. Soon after she died, at just 31, Gauguin’s primitives, Matisse’s nudes, Manet’s and Picasso’s prostitutes, and Surrealists’ body parts were all the rage. While these artists’ works have made an undoubtable impact on the history of western art, many were painted with male sexual energy and depicted women dominated by men.

Marginalised in the aesthetic and political discourses of early 20th-century art, women artists such as Modersohn-Becker, and later, Frida Kahlo and Suzanne Valadon turned to women’s bodies as the central subject of female experience. By fusing her observation and knowledge of the female body, based on her experiences as a woman, wife and mother, Modersohn-Becker’s self portraits and bodies have not been organised for male viewing pleasure.

Modersohn-Becker’s Mother and Child, 1907. Wikimedia Images

In a style that is direct and uncompromising, she paints herself naked and pregnant. She paints ordinary people, such as maids, orphans, figures from the insane asylum, peasants, the “knock-kneed”, and various women with swollen bellies – in natural settings.

In light of a growing interest in women’s contributions to the history of art, the life of Modersohn-Becker is the subject of a recent biography by French author Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Translated elegantly by Penny Hueston, the study retains some of the spacious, if not capacious quality of the French language and its ability to articulate the phenomena of presence of absence – the continued aliveness of the paintings and the sad and sudden death of the painter.

The cover of Being Here, featuring Modersohn-Becker’s pregnant self portrait. Text Publishing

Darrieussecq brings to light the story of this important German artist whom, until all too recently, has been relatively overlooked. Darrieussecq was inspired to write her own account of Modersohn-Becker after her encounter with a retrospective of her works held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2016. Most of Modersohn-Becker’s works are now housed in the Bremen Art Museum in Germany. She is now accepted as a proto-expressionist, well worth gaining our attention.

Dresden-born, Modersohn-Becker studied her craft in Berlin, and also took drawing lessons in England, however, it was her period spent at Worpswede artist’s colony that influenced her irrevocably as an artist. Here she met poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his future wife, Clara Westhoff, a sculptor who became one of her closest friends.

Rilke, torn between the two women, described Modersohn-Becker as

all beauty and slenderness, the new lily flowering … We looked at each other, with a shiver of amazement.

While he chose Clara for his wife, he maintained a deep and sincere friendship with Modersohn-Becker throughout her life – and, arguably, provided her with more support artistically, emotionally and financially, than if he had married her.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Stilllife with goldfish bowl, circa 1906. Wikimedia Images

As a young woman, Modersohn-Becker also attended the Adadémie Colarossi in Paris, where she won an art prize; after winning, she wrote home to her parents, “Life is serious, rich and beautiful”. Only a decade earlier, sculptor Camille Claudel was refused entry into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, simply for being a woman. With the turn of the century, things had changed.

Modersohn-Becker married German painter Otto Modersohn, whose “simplicity and depth ma[de her] pious”. But after her marriage, she was irresistibly drawn to Paris where she met the likes of Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Gaugin. She adored the burgeoning experiments of post-impressionism, as much as the “French aptitude for pleasure”.

“We Germans would perish from moralistic hangovers,” she wrote to her husband once she got there. She urged her husband to visit but he initially refused, wanting to eschew the influence of Monet and others who “paint[ed] outdoors with watches in their hands”. He wrote, “How much better to be German.”

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Stilllife, child’s head with white cloth, circa 1908. Wikimedia Images

Darrieussecq presents a picture of a complex marriage, whereby Modersohn-Becker is forever struggling for independence, despite Otto’s devotedness. Hers was a life in many ways punctuated by acute loneliness, though her sincere friendship with Rilke offered her some consolation.

Modersohn-Becker felt happier separate from Otto, and also insisted he send her money to support her life in Paris. Her independence meant everything to her artistically. She wrote to him, “I hope to become me more and more.”

Modersohn-Becker with her daughter, days before her death. Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of her life, she painted feverishly. In 1907, discovering she was pregnant, she united with Otto. Upon the birth of her child, she developed an embolism. She was advised by her doctor to lie in bed. When she got up 19 days later, she died.

Being Here is a slim volume, written in contemplative mode, in the present tense. While such a stylistic choice is effective in capturing the immediacy of encountering a work of art, it is nonetheless rather unusual for biography.

While this may be distracting for the reader, the book is faithful to both the gaps and absences which appear in Modersohn-Becker’s life, and in the art of attempting to narrate a life. Darrieussecq explains,

through all these gaps, I in turn am writing this story, which is not Paula M Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.