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Stalled on the Verge

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Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist
by Diane Radycki
Yale University Press, 2013.

9780300185300What did Paula Modersohn-Becker have to do, at the dawn of the twentieth century, to get herself taken seriously as a painter? The first thing was to live long enough, and she didn’t: she died in 1907 at thirty-one, after giving birth to her one child, a daughter. One thing she knew she must do was to go to Paris, the center of modernist ferment, as often as possible, and she did so, determinedly, in the face of considerable resistance. Otto Modersohn, the older painter she had married after coming as a student to the artist colony of Worpswede, outside Bremen, was suspicious of the increasingly radical modernism developing there. At last, as tensions in the marriage came to a head, she left without warning in the middle of the night, intending not to return and to live on her own as a painter in the capital of modern art. For months she resisted pressure from her husband and others to return, and in those months she worked furiously, creating her most dramatic work. But finally she saw that she could not make a living there (for her husband was still supporting her), and agreed to go back. Fatefully, she then conceived a child, and went on painting. Kept in bed as a precaution for eighteen days after giving birth, she was finally allowed to rise, her new daughter was placed in her arms, and then she died almost instantly, saying only “What a pity.”

It is not hard to see why this life and death, recounted in more than one bad novel, have conspired to make Modersohn-Becker a mythic figure, the nature of the myth depending on the times and the perspective of the observer. From the start, she had utterly serious artistic ambitions, but an unfortunate effect of this mythologizing—one common feature of which was the label of ill-starred might-have-been—has been to place the sensational aspects of the life in front of the paintings, either making it seem unnecessary to look at them at all or providing easy, formulaic responses confirming whatever version of the myth the observer has brought to the viewing.

Modersohn-Becker_01As a young woman she kept a journal that, after an egregious sanitizing and rewriting job by an intrusive editor, became an inspirational bestseller in Germany in the twenties and thirties. It emphasized not the powerful woman and painter she became but the charming, dreamy girl she had been, inviting comparison to the most popular might-have-been of the previous generation, the tubercular Marie Bashkirtseff, a far lesser figure. Modersohn-Becker’s paintings gradually made their way into collections around Germany—until her work, like that of so many others, was condemned as degenerate by the Nazis and removed from museums.

And then there was this business with Rainer Maria Rilke. As a young woman she had made a deep impression on the equally young poet, who ultimately married her best friend, and who after her death wrote his brilliant, flawed, harrowing “Requiem for a Friend,” full of praise and blame, admonition and self-justification, that made her name known to his worldwide readership. It too gave the impression, while praising one of her paintings and condemning another, that she had gone wrong by bearing a child and as a result, fallen short.

Fortunately, Modersohn-Becker has always had passionate advocates for her work, even though their efforts have achieved only moderate success outside of Germany. To these, including this reviewer, she has seemed for decades on the verge of becoming the next Frida Kahlo, that is, the next once-neglected woman artist whose images are suddenly everywhere and whose paintings are owned by rock stars. The common mantra among these might be, Look at the paintings. The problem here is that there are few of them in American collections, and there has never been a full-scale exhibition in an American museum. It has been nearly forty years, too, since the last amply illustrated monograph was published here. We darkly suspect further reasons: does the fact that many of her advocates are (naturally) feminist artists and art historians, for whom she is a great inspiration, give some people an excuse to dismiss her? Ridiculous as it would seem, is even the bulky hyphenated surname a reason? Writing about her, we struggle to avoid having to use it more than once in any given paragraph, and wish we could get away with just calling her Paula, as we do among ourselves.

Who are we? The cult following? There are too many now to call us that. The Paula-heads? That I can live with. And one exemplary lifelong Paula-head is Diane Radycki, who in 1980 published a pioneering translation of Modersohn-Becker’s letters and journals. In 1994 she completed her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on the artist, and has now transformed it into Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist. It is the most complete biography available in English, and it has enough full-color reproductions—one could always wish for more—to convey the scope of her accomplishment. Radycki presents a robust art-historical case that her story is “the missing piece in the history of twentieth century modernism.” Modersohn-Becker, she says, transformed that mainstay of western art, the nude, in a number of literally unprecedented ways: she painted unidealized, uneroticized full and partial nudes of young peasant children and old peasant women, nudes of mothers nursing their babies, and most shockingly, nude self-portraits. In her final self-portrait, not a nude, she was the first artist to paint herself as pregnant. In Radycki’s words, “Modersohn-Becker removed the female nude from the visual theater of seductive exchange between the (male) artist and the (male) viewer.” A bit later she writes,

There is no male precedent for what she was doing, nor could there be. She painted the female body from within its immanent life, a radical spectacle of skin and pubic hair. In her work the erotic body no more wars with a maternal body than culture disconnects from nature. Any comparison for her paintings comes not from art’s history of the female nude, but from future twentieth-century body imagery.

It is natural that Radycki, feminist and art historian, should make her case in art-historical terms, enumerating Modersohn-Becker’s firsts and the later work enabled by their precedents, and she makes it well. In one of her most convincing demonstrations, she juxtaposes Modersohn-Becker’s early paintings of adolescents and mothers with two photographs by the contemporary Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra: one an awkwardly posing pubescent girl in a bathing suit, on a beach in Poland; the other a nude woman holding her baby in her arms. Both are insistently ordinary, vulnerable and real. We recognize the value of such images now, but it is stunning to learn that Modersohn-Becker had recognized it more than a century earlier, when there were no real precedents.

But the ultimate goal of the argument, to demonstrate that this is a far more important artist than is recognized, at least outside of Germany, can also be reached by other routes, perhaps more accessible to the average reader. Radycki often finds a degree of intentionality—an awareness of the historical significance of various expedients and decisions in Modersohn-Becker’s work and a determination to break new ground—that I would be inclined to dial back, if only a little. There is the case of that last, pregnant self-portrait. In a blue and white robe, face flushed, she meets the eyes of the observer, calmly and firmly, with even the hint of a smile; at the bottom her right hand rests on what we would now call her baby bump, while the left holds up next to her left cheek two flowers, which Radycki parses as “the creative woman’s twin gifts: her genius and her biology.” “Not since Manet’s Olympia,” she continues, “has such a no-nonsense glance been leveled at the viewer. Deal with it, she challenges us: deal with the metaphor and the reality”. For this observer, the image reflects instead a kind of radiant immanence, the eyes meeting the observer’s but with calm and clarity rather than any desire to challenge.

paula-modersohn_becker_self-portait-on-her-sixth-wedding-dayAs for the nude self-portraits, she could scarcely have been unaware that they would shock. She could not have dared to paint them in Worpswede, under the eye of her husband. The most notorious of these, “Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day” (the literal German for what we would call her fifth anniversary) shows her nude but for a drape at the hips, with her two hands framing her womb, bringing pregnancy as fact or possibility into the work at a time when she was not pregnant. She inscribed in the wet paint with the tip of her brush handle the inscription “I painted this at age thirty on my fifth wedding anniversary,” signing it with the initials of her maiden name, P.B. Underlying it is an unstated bit of autobiography: for nearly all of those five years, the marriage had gone unconsummated because of her husband’s impotence. There are four images of this painting in Radycki’s monograph: one full-page reproduction of the whole, two details—of the face, and of her hands framing her womb—as well as a small image of the painting in situ with two girls bending down to read the inscription, for this is the painting that stops museum-goers in Bremen in their tracks.

Radycki’s reading is, naturally, art-historical. She sees one precedent for it in the Louvre: ”the Venus de Milo with a decorous drape knotted just so, beneath a glistening marble belly, whose absent arms the painter could imagine circling [the] vital center.” She continues this way: “She proclaimed herself goddess and creatrix on 25 May 1906 . . . Her strategy is greedy and gargantuan: she gives herself the shape of the woman artist who wants it all. Her talent is immediate; motherhood is her birthright.” For the less knowledgeable, a more visceral reading is also possible. The painter / model looks directly into the eyes of the observer, unmistakably blushing, vulnerable but determined. Seen in person, the work conveys the uncanny sense of being in the unmediated presence of the artist herself. This painting, alone among the nude self-portraits, does seem to challenge the viewer directly, perhaps even to say, “Deal with it.” In its introduction of autobiographical fact, its source in anger and pain, its confrontational stance and its introduction of text into the painting—all in addition to the sufficiently shocking nudity—it anticipates much in the self-portraits of Kahlo, born the year Modersohn-Becker died.

For all this, the painting is an anomaly, and it’s too bad that it is by far the best known of her works. It shows that she had a lot of nerve, but it reveals little of what she could do as a painter (which may be at its best in some of the still-lifes, though these stand no chance of gaining the popularity of the nudes). Rilke, for whom great art was impersonal, denounces it in his requiem for what he sees as a grave artistic error: introducing the merely personal, the status of her marriage:

Why show me, by your bearing, some bad omen;
why display the contours of your body
as if they were the lines in the palm of your hand
which I can see now only as your fate?

ambernecklace_1906Among the nude self-portraits, the one Rilke singled out for praise in order to balance his denunciation of the other is known as “Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace,” the brighter and more colorful of two iterations of the same pose: from the waist up, nude, a small flower in each hand (the right near her right shoulder, the left between her breasts), three flowers in her hair, and stylized plant forms with flowers and butterflies in the background. (Unfortunately, in Radycki’s monograph a very dark reproduction limits the effect of the painting.) The degree of transformation (Rilke’s term of praise in the poem for the work he approved of) achieved in this painting can be measured against a heartbreakingly personal document Radycki also reproduces: the photographs that Modersohn-Becker took or had taken of herself, in the mirror, in the nude, in her Paris studio, in the pose of this and one other painting. Rilke was fond of using the mirror image as metaphor for what distinguishes great art: undeniably and vividly present, it is nonetheless unenterable, inviolate. Serious readers of Rilke’s requiem need to see both painting and photograph, and understand the role played by the literal mirror in the studio in order to appreciate the metaphorical mirror in the poem:

At last you saw yourself as fruit, you took
yourself out of your clothes and brought yourself
before the mirror, then let yourself go in,
all but your gaze, so great it stayed outside,
and said not: I am that; no, said: this is.
So free of curiosity at last,
your gaze, so free of owning, of such true
poverty, wanting not even yourself: holy.

(translations by Eric Torgersen)

This poem is a small but remarkable nexus in the histories of literature and of visual art, especially when the woman a great poet wrote about is seen to be a major painter in her own right, and the readily identifiable paintings admired or deplored by the poet (who had seen them because she was also painting his portrait in her Paris studio) are seen as speaking to and completing the poem. Once seen by the reader, they become inseparable from it, and, far more than in any ordinary instance of ekphrasis, poem and paintings become a virtually collaborative work by two artists who knew each other and interacted intensely. Modersohn-Becker’s portrait of Rilke further enriches the experience.

Radycki’s monograph is lively and boldly structured, alternating chapters on the life with chapters on the art, placing the latter in a rich series of biographical and artistic contexts. It documents the exhibition history—and hence the public perception of artist and work—following her death. Its goal is clearly to push the artist, finally, beyond that verge of recognition on which she has been stalled, and it is a vital step toward that goal. The reproductions to be found online convey the paintings’ iconography, but little of brushstroke, texture and other signs of their making. Those in the monograph show much more, which is one more good reason to buy the book. But the central reason remains the work itself: the trove of full-color reproductions.

There is, of course, one thing more on the Paula-heads’ wish list: a full-scale retrospective touring major museums here. Considering how often and how widely Modersohn-Becker’s work travels in Germany, and the labors of so many there to preserve and promote her legacy, it is difficult to see how obstacles in the way of such an exhibition can go on delaying its arrival. Diane Radycki’s monograph, widely read, may well bring the fulfillment of this wish a bit closer.

Eric Torgersen has published six books and chapbooks of poetry, two of fiction, and a full-length study of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. He also translates German poetry, especially that of Rainer Maria Rilke and Nicolas Born.