Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker
The German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker was born in Dresden in 1876 and died in 1907 at the age of 31. She sold only three canvases in her lifetime but is today recognised as an artist of remarkable originality and a crucial link between the radical Impressionism of artists such as Cézanne and Gauguin and later modernist movements.
French writer Marie Darrieussecq sketches out the all-too-brief life of this vibrant and determined artist in a series of rapid vignettes full of lightness and longing. This is a short book, but it sparkles with interest. It is a book about painting and the male gaze, about marriage and a craving for independence, and about art and the female experience.
At 25, Modersohn-Becker married a melancholic landscape painter and lived with him in a sedate artist colony in Worpswede in the north of Germany. After two years, she abandoned both husband and colony for the bustle and colour of her beloved Paris. She was an extraordinary portrait artist and – incredibly – may have been the first woman to paint herself nude. She was also a naturally gifted writer, and a collection of her passionate, funny letters became a bestseller in the 1920s.
Modersohn-Becker wasn’t made to play the happy hausfrau, but she did try. “In this first year of my marriage I have cried a great deal and my tears often come like the great tears of childhood,” she wrote on Easter Sunday in 1902, sitting in her kitchen in Worpswede, cooking a veal roast. Marriage for her was a kind of spiritual impingement. It threatened what Rilke would have called her “inner realisation of life”.
Rilke was in fact a close friend and confidant and figures prominently in this biography. The title of the book is taken from his Duino Elegies and there are all sorts of suggestive parallels between the life of the poet and the life of the painter, including a shared sense of artistic vocation.
For all its dash and dazzle and literary cleverness, Being Here can sometimes seem a bit cursory or underdeveloped, but there’s no resisting the urgency of Darrieussecq’s sympathy for – and identification with – this fascinating artist. This is an evocative tribute to Modersohn-Becker, her desire to paint, and in particular her desire to paint herself, for her body to be seen, a woman’s body really seen without masculine artifice as if for the first time. JR
Text, 176pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 8, 2017 as "Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker ". Subscribe here.