Summary of Paula Modersohn-Becker
Talented, rebellious, and utterly honest, Paula Modersohn-Becker's groundbreaking life and work expose the scandalous restrictions imposed on women at the turn of the twentieth century, in turn sowing a primary seed for radical change. Inspired stylistically by the Post-Impressionists, Modersohn-Becker's starting point was simple, seeking to investigate, learn from, and to elevate everyday life, with a particular focus on female experience. Painting un-idealized and therefore revolutionary pictures of girls, older ladies, and new mothers she stands as a pioneer exploring transitions of age and maternal identity. Luckily leaving behind a vast correspondence with artist friends and many diary entries, we are given a valuable insight into a woman's desire to be respected in her multiplicity. Sadly killed by the role of being a mother that she was intent on re-envisioning, Modersohn-Becker's last word was schade ("what a pity"), as she died entirely too early, shortly after giving birth.
- Modersohn-Becker had a life-long love for life drawing and the nude anatomy. By repeatedly painting her own nude self-portrait, she broke down long-standing gender barriers. In order to draw from life she was drawn back and forth to the city of Paris whilst her husband remained living in Germany. She therefore championed independence and proposed an unabashed, alternative way of living for married women.
- Although the subject had previously been discussed in memoirs and literature, Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first person to make the state of pregnancy visible. Today, it is a common occurrence to see the pregnant body in art and in the media, but at the beginning of the twentieth century this was utterly unheard of. She not only highlighted pregnancy as a complex psychological state, but also exposed breast-feeding as another profound and important topic, previously wholly overlooked.
- The idea that Modersohn-Becker's life and art were entirely intertwined is highlighted by her attraction and time spent living with the community at Worpswede. There are various examples of living more communally and artistically that punctuate history (The Bloomsbury Group being the English equivalent). Involvement with such groups provides networks of support and contacts, which in the case of Modersohn-Becker resulted in successful promotion of her work and more exhibitions during the early stages of her career.
- Suppression that Modersohn-Becker experienced at home was sadly in line with a darker suppression of the highest order. Whilst her husband commented of his wife's later portraits, "Her vision is so lacking in femininity and so vulgar...", this was the same stance that Adolf Hitler took in 1937 when he included Modersohn-Becker's work in his Degenerate Art Exhibition. The parallel highlights the sad fact that in their refusal to remain indifferent or to practice blind acceptance, "truth tellers" often pose great threat to the appearance of domestic and political order.
Biography of Paula Modersohn-Becker
This photograph captures a rare moment of unified embrace between Paula Modersohn-Becker and her artist husband, Otto, in a relationship more often remembered for its divisions.
Important Art by Paula Modersohn-Becker
As the title reflects, a large birch tree dominates the foreground of Paula Modersohn-Becker's early landscape painting. Split at its base - perhaps alluding to divided interests as woman and artist - the tree rises up in two large white columns. Set in the fall season, the leaves are depicted in a vivid orange, and in the background stands another smaller birch in an expansive green field.
The painting is a good example of Modersohn-Becker's early focus on landscapes, gleaned in part from the overarching interest in landscape painting to be found at the artist colony at Worpswede. The focus was particularly strong for Fritz Mackensen, the founder and for the artist's future husband, Otto Modersohn. Thus Modersohn-Becker too chose to depict the simple beauty of surrounding landscapes for a time. Of her first experience with the colony, she later wrote, "...Worpswede, Worpswede, you are always on my mind. That was real feeling to the tip of my tiniest finger. Your mighty grandiose pines! I call them my men, broad, gnarled and large, and yet with fine, fine sinews and nerves. I think this is an ideal artistic form. And your birches, the delicate slender young women, which bring joy to the eye." Here is a similar albeit visual manifestation of these strong grateful feelings expressed towards the wonder of nature.
Interestingly though, as Modersohn-Becker began spending more time in Paris, she became increasingly influenced by modern art. As she became heavily inspired by the work of the Post-Impressionists including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, her landscapes became looser and more abstract than those by other members of the colony. Indeed, within a few years, Modersohn-Becker moved away from landscapes all together, turning instead to still lifes and then to portraits. Here, however, one importantly sees a full embrace of natural themes, and reveals the artist's clear inspiration from Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet.
This Modersohn-Becker still life in classic formation consists of a table with red and white-checkered tablecloth upon which is placed a plate overflowing with oranges, some apples, and a large cut pumpkin.
While best known for her portraits, Modersohn-Becker also created a large body of still lifes, with the most notable similar to this one and completed in the same year. According to art historian Diane Radycki, the artist, "...was only sporadically occupied with still life for the first two years after she quit landscape painting, even though she painted at least one such picture every year.[...Then] [i]n 1905 [...] there was a dramatic increase in the number of still lifes she painted, so much that over the next two years she produced more than fifty of them."
This particular still life importantly highlights the increasing influence of Post-Impressionism on Modersohn-Becker's painting style. Specifically, the compositional elements of the bunched tablecloth and casually placed fruits are reminiscent of the still lifes of Paul Cézanne. Similarly, the loosely but heavily-applied brushstrokes, most notably on the pumpkin flesh itself, also recall the techniques of Cezanne, as well as further revealing the influence of Vincent van Gogh. Evident here, is an artist, who had fully embraced the Paris modernism of which she too was an integral part.
As the title describes, in this painting, Paula Modersohn-Becker depicts a naked woman lying in a cradling embrace with her infant. Eyes closed, the mother lovingly protects the head of the naked child with her arm; there is also the possibility that the baby is breastfeeding. This would have been a profound and shocking image at the time that it was created. To expose a new mother and child in such a realistic pose, in utter contrast to previous idealized religious iconography, was a completely invisible experience at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, the subject remained very unusual and overlooked until early in the twenty first century, roughly 100 years later.
For the pioneering Modersohn-Becker, she recognized that this was one of the themes through which, as a female artist, she was able to push the boundaries of gender and in turn to empower women through their own everyday experience. Her approach to the long-established tradition of mother and child portraits was primarily groundbreaking in that she depicted the duo in the nude and furthermore, often in moments of simple, innocent, and shared intimacy. Indeed, this is a modern approach to maternity and one that matches the contemporary photographs depicted in Home Truths: Motherhood and Photography (2013), a seminal exhibition on the subject held in London over a century after Modersohn-Becker's similar explorations.
Modersohn-Becker gives no attempt to appeal to the male gaze, nor does she provide an overly-perfected, Madonna-like depiction of a mother and her child. Radycki reasons, "the frank exhibition of the body, from breast to belly to pubic hair, sets this apart from all previous maternities, and points not back but forward. The 'generic motif' for Modersohn-Becker is a decidedly twentieth-century one: the New Woman, envisioned alternately as an emaciated figure or as a gargantuan amazon." She was a trailblazer, a rebel, and a revolutionary painter and human being.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Paula Modersohn-Becker
- Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-BeckerBy Marie Darrieussecq
- Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman ArtistOur PickBy Diane Radycki
- Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and JournalsOur PickBy Paula Modersohn-Becker, edited by Gunter Busch
- Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her Life and WorkOur PickBy Gillian Perry
- Paula Modersohn-Becker: The German artist who was the first woman to paint a nude self-portraitIndependent / February 8, 2018 / This article and embedded video describes and shows the 2018 Google doodle celebrating the life and art of Paula Modersohn-Becker
- PAULA Trailer German Deutsch (2016) Paula Modersohn-Becker BiopicThis video show the theatrical trailer for the 2016 German film Paula about the life of artist Paula Modersohn-Becker