For somewhere an old enmity exists
between our life and that great work we do
Rainer Maria Rilke
“Requiem for a Friend”
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was almost completely unknown when she died following childbirth at the age of thirty-one, but within fifteen years she had become a near mythic figure in her native Germany. Posthumous exhibitions were staged at museums and prestigious galleries throughout the country. The artist’s letters and journals, limited excerpts from which were first published in 1913, became a bestseller when an expanded edition appeared in 1919-20. And she was famously eulogized by Rainer Maria Rilke, whose early career had been intimately intertwined with hers. Although these literary elements did not exactly overshadow Modersohn-Becker’s art, they gave her story a tragic cast that belies the unsentimental rigor of her achievement.
As Eric Torgersen notes in Dear Friend, his insightful study of Rilke and Modersohn-Becker, the poet believed that art is a vocation incompatible with the requirements of ordinary life. In “Requiem for a Friend,” Rilke accused the painter of choosing life over art, “falling back” into a conventional marriage and hence succumbing to a postpartum embolism. Even as he mourned his friend’s premature death, he blamed her for it. Feminists, too, have often presented Modersohn-Becker as a victim— in this case not of her own maternal longings, but of a patriarchal society that would not permit her to live independently as an artist. Modersohn-Becker, however, did not believe that art and life are incompatible. Her triumph lay in overcoming the practical obstacles life placed in her way to create paintings of surpassing greatness.
Paula Becker had the good and ill fortune to be born at a time when traditional gender roles were just beginning to be questioned. Aspiring female painters could not attend the art academies in most European cities, but they did have access to any number of alternative, although inferior, institutions. Marriage was still a woman’s only real path to financial security, but there were employment options, albeit severely constrained, for those unable or unwilling to wed. Paula’s father, Woldemar Becker, insisted she obtain teaching credentials, because he feared she was too headstrong to please a mate. Through a combination of persistence, luck and grudging parental acquiescence, Paula managed instead to pursue her passion for art. While taking teacher training, she squeezed in drawing lessons. After completing the training course in 1895, she convinced her mother to let her attend the School of Drawing and Painting run by the Berlin Association of Female Artists and Friends of Art. Just when it seemed Paula would finally have to seek a teaching post, a windfall inheritance enabled her to continue her art studies in Berlin and to move, in 1898, to the artists’ colony in Worpswede.
The Worpswede colony had been founded in 1889 by the painters Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn and Hans am Ende, who were later joined by Carl Vinnen, Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler. Worpswede was a striking rural redoubt—characterized by seemingly endless flat moors beneath a vast cloudscape—about fifteen miles from Bremen. Here the artists sought an antidote to all the perceived failings of contemporary society, from their own conservative academic training to the perils of industrialization. Worpswede’s peasants, who eked out a meager living farming and cutting peat, offered an implicit moral rebuke to the urban middle class. Though the art colony’s ideas had been anticipated decades earlier by the French Barbizon school, in the comparatively provincial German north, the Worpswede painters were “modern” enough to offend Woldemar Becker, even as they entranced his young daughter.
Landscape was a primary subject for the Worpswede artists. “I value most highly the description of Nature in its simplicity,” Otto Modersohn wrote, “since Nature surely possesses a more original power than the most assiduous conscious efforts of men.” Paula Becker was in part attracted to Worpswede by the local scenery, poetically likening the pine trees to muscular men and the birches to delicate virgins or bold “modern women.” Yet early on she chafed against the “devout representation of nature” espoused by Mackensen. She was driven to go beyond surface appearances, to drill down to the essence of things. “My own personal feeling, that is the main thing,” she declared. “Once I have got that pinned down, clear in its form and color, only then do I introduce things from nature, which will make my picture have a natural effect.” Less than a year after arriving at the artists’ colony, Becker recognized that no one there really shared her goals. “I believe I shall grow away from here,” she wrote.
So it was that on December 31, 1899, Becker set off for Paris, entering the capital of the international art world on the first day of a new century. Paris was a Mecca for artists from all over Europe, who rotated among the Académie Julian, the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. Beyond a wealth of formal educational opportunities, Paris offered the stimulus of artistic camaraderie and exposure to a vast array of art in commercial galleries, museums and above all, at the Louvre. After Worpswede, Becker found the city’s bustle overwhelming, even as she basked in its many pleasures. She also struggled to reconcile French joie de vivre with the relative stodginess of her native land. “Now I can feel how we in Germany are far from being liberated,” she wrote Modersohn. “We do not rise above things,… we cling too much to the past.” “I like to look at French art,” Modersohn responded, “even if in the long run it makes one return all the more emphatically to one’s own work. For it is a great pleasure to be a German, to feel German, to think German.”
Putting distance, geographically and artistically, between herself and Worpswede, Becker nonetheless singled out Modersohn as the one member of the group who had risen above “the mountain of conventionality.” She urged him to come to Paris for the Universal Exposition, a grand multinational display that included two huge exhibitions of recent art. Burdened with a tubercular wife and a small daughter, the 35-year-old painter hesitated but finally acquiesced to Becker’s girlish pleading. Modersohn’s visit, however, was cut short by the sudden news of his wife’s death. Becker followed him back to Worpswede, where after the passage of a discreet interval, they publically affirmed the feelings that had been evident already in Paris. The couple married in May 1901.
At the outset Paula and Otto shared a deep artistic bond. Otto reciprocated his bride’s admiration, no doubt seeing her as a promising protégé. “She has wit, spirit, fantasy,” he noted in his journal. “She has a splendid sense of color and form….At the same time that I am able to give her [a greater sense of] intimacy, she gives me something of her greatness, her freedom, her lapidary quality.” Marriage to Modersohn, already well established professionally, allowed Paula to evade her father’s persistent demands that she seek gainful employment and instead to go on painting. Every morning after breakfast she would vanish into her own separate studio, rented from a Worpswede family, the Brünjes. Sometimes she and Otto painted or sketched side-by-side on the moors or at the local poorhouse. Though their work from this time can look confusingly similar, Paula was less interested than her husband in realistic verisimilitude. She sought a more reductive approach, a means to express “the gentle vibration of things.” “I must strive for the utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation,” she wrote. “That is where greatness lies.”
Paula remained in Worpswede with Otto for over a year and a half after their marriage, sharing what at first seemed to both a creative idyll. In addition to drawing and painting, she experimented with etching during this period, a technique she learned from Heinrich Vogeler. Vogeler, the youngest member of the original Worspwede group, was more influenced by Jugendstil design than the others. Jugendstil touched upon the organic simplicity Paula craved, but the style also incorporated decorative elements that were totally at odds with her broader goals. Though undeniably productive, she was reaching the limit of what could be learned in Worspwede. Otto’s work began to strike her as insufficiently adventuresome. “We Germans always obediently paint our pictures from top to bottom and are much too ponderous,” she told him. “[Paula] doesn’t believe me when I say I have now really had very important insights,” he grumbled.
In February 1903, Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris, leaving Otto behind. Rainer Maria Rilke and his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff (a friend and Worpswede colleague of Paula’s), were also there, and the three often visited exhibitions together. Rainer Maria introduced Paula to Rodin, Clara’s sometime teacher and the subject of the poet’s latest book. As a painter, Modersohn-Becker found Rodin’s drawings especially inspiring, marveling at their color and the artist’s “total lack of concern for convention.” Viewing an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts and scrolls with the Rilkes, she again bemoaned the comparative poverty of German painting. “Our art is very meager in expressing the emotions,” Paula wrote Otto. “We must put more weight on the fundamentals!” Among her most important discoveries on this second trip to Paris was the Louvre’s antiquities collection. “I have a real sense of being able to learn from the heads of ancient sculpture,” she exulted. “What grand and simple insight went into their creation! Brows, eyes, mouth, nose, cheek, chin, that is all. It sounds so simple and yet it’s so very, very much.” Egyptian mummy portraits, especially, seemed to offer the solution she had been seeking: radical simplification that yet retained a closeness to nature. Alluding simultaneously to life and death, presence and absence, these portrait heads evoke the eternal. Modersohn-Becker was enthralled as well by the tactile immediacy of the small encaustic paintings, which she tried to emulate by layering her colors and scarifying the pigment with the sharp end of her brush.
Modersohn-Becker came home to Otto in March, earlier than planned, but the couple’s creative idyll was not to resume. During those few weeks in Paris, Paula’s artistic vision had become irreconcilably estranged from that of her husband. “She hates to be conventional and is now falling prey to the error of preferring to make everything angular, ugly, bizarre, wooden,” Otto complained. “Her colors are wonderful—but the form? The expression! Hands like spoons, noses like cobs, mouths like wounds, faces like cretins.” Inevitably, the artistic falling-out was accompanied by a domestic one. For a man of his generation, Otto permitted his wife an exceptional degree of autonomy—a stance facilitated by the fact that he could afford to hire household help. Still, he repeatedly bemoaned Paula’s lack of family feeling, the “egotism” that had also been a sore point with her parents. “It must be the most difficult thing for a woman to be highly developed spiritually and to be intelligent, and still be completely feminine,” he commented in his journal. “These modern women cannot really love…. They think that egotism, independence, conceit are the best things there are; and no happy marriage can come from that.” Paula did her best to be a good mother to Otto’s daughter Elsbeth and to “calm the waves” that arose amongst the three of them. “In many little things I give in,” she noted. “But in a few big things I could almost not give in, even if I really wanted to.” And in this she was resolved: she would go back to Paris, which she now recognized as “my city.”
Modersohn-Becker’s third Parisian sojourn, in early 1905, was overshadowed by her husband’s misgivings. Otto’s visit to fetch her in April, shortly after his mother’s death, proved particularly disastrous. “He was very jealous of Paris, French art, French nonchalance…etc.,” Paula told her sister. “He imagined that I only preferred to stay in Paris and thought nothing at all of Worpswede.” As the rift between the two deepened, even Otto could admit that Worpswede had been “a great mistake.” “One gets stuck in the swamp,” he wrote. “One turns sour.” But it was too late. In February 1906 Paula departed for Paris for the fourth and final time, intending never to return. “Now I have left Otto Modersohn and am standing between my old life and my new life,” she announced. “I wonder what will become of me in my new life? Now whatever must be, will be.”
As the Modersohn-Becker scholar Günter Busch notes, the artist did not try to copy painters she admired, but rather took from each aspects that suited her agenda. Nor did she feel compelled to follow a preordained art-historical trajectory. She skipped about, from the ancient to the contemporary, always with both eyes focused on her idiosyncratic goals. Modersohn-Becker had encountered Cézanne and possibly the Nabis on her first Parisian trip, and she was familiar with Gauguin by 1903, if not earlier. However, these influences did not become fully evident in her work until 1906. All the aforementioned artists (including Modersohn-Becker) were grappling with the by-then oppressive legacy of Impressionism, with its avowed reliance on transitory optical effects. As an alternative, the Post-Impressionists stressed the autonomy of the artwork, recognizing (in the famous words of Maurice Denis) that a painting, regardless of its ostensible subject, is “essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Modersohn-Becker was deeply impressed by the colors and forms of Gauguin and Cézanne, but she never abandoned her underlying fidelity to nature. Rather, she saw abstract pictorial elements as a means to penetrate the visible world, to capture what Busch calls the “innermost substance” of her subjects, their “spiritual impact.”
There is a marked stillness to Modersohn-Becker’s paintings: an airless flattening of space and, in her faces, a masklike opacity reminiscent of the mummy portraits. At the same time, there is a reassuring solidity to her figures and an exultation in the quotidian that anchors her still-lifes to reality. Countering Impressionism, the artist created iconic images that transcend momentary experiences, be they perceptual or emotional. She eschewed both the abstractionist tendencies of the French and the bold urgency characteristic of the German Expressionists. Modersohn-Becker was a modern painter, but she was not a “painter of modern life.” Her subject was not change, but the changeless.
Modersohn-Becker saw Worpswede as a repository for primordial values. Attracted initially by the landscape’s formal simplicity—flat plains and a low horizon bisected by an occasional tree—she found herself increasingly drawn to the human element. Children (with and without mothers) became her most frequent figural subject. The local peasant women and their offspring were readily accessible and did not charge much to pose. (Of course trees, flowers, fruit and crockery cost nothing.) Like male art students, Modersohn-Becker took life drawing classes, and therefore the female nude was another common subject, especially in her drawings. When models were scarce, she could always turn the mirror (or a camera) on herself. It has been said that Modersohn-Becker was the first woman to paint herself naked. However, if the artist’s primary subjects were partly determined by circumstance, they also formed an organic trinity, a conjoined exploration of nature, childhood and feminine identity.
These interests were not unique to Modersohn-Becker. Rilke, for example, believed that, “Children see nature differently; lonely children, especially…join her with a kind of like-mindedness and live in her as small animals do—given over completely to the events of the forest and the sky.” Artists, in Rilke’s mind, were like these “lonely children,” striving to recapture an innocent unity with nature. Woman, too, was closer to nature than man, in that she was “physical far into her soul and designed for bringing forth living offspring.” Yet while Rilke and other fin-de-siècle males admired women for their power to nurture life, they felt threatened by female sexual desire. The childbearing and sexual aspects of femininity were walled off in the distinct categories of the “Madonna” and the “whore,” expressed artistically in the genres of the mother and child and the nude. As a woman, Modersohn-Becker recognized that this attempt to separate procreation from sex was ludicrous, and she deliberately defied it by painting pregnant nudes (a longstanding artistic taboo). Her nudes, however, lack the undercurrent of lust and the elements of visual titillation that inevitably color male iterations of the subject. She saw women “as fruit,” Rilke remarked in the “Requiem.” (And, one might add, she saw fruit as living bodies.) Rilke believed that her paintings were holy, because they transcended mortal desire. But this observation was not accurate. It was just that Modersohn-Becker had a female point of view.
Modersohn-Becker wanted to have children and considered childbearing one of the sacred mysteries of human life. Nevertheless, she put off motherhood to concentrate on her work and also, evidently, because Otto was unable to consummate their marriage. He was understandably devastated when she left him and beseeched her to take him back. Paula, making great artistic strides in Paris, repeatedly rejected these entreaties, even as she remained reliant upon Otto for financial support. Her decision, eventually, to reconcile with her husband was a capitulation to the social realities of the period, but in no way an abdication of her artistic mission. On the contrary, only marriage offered the economic stability required for Paula to continue painting. And Otto promised to do whatever she wanted, to travel more, to go to Paris… which he did, in October 1906. Here, it seems, they made love for the first time; when Paula returned to Worpswede in April 1907, she was pregnant.
In returning to Worspwede and Otto, Modersohn-Becker was not (as Rilke believed) choosing life over art. Just as she tried to imbue her paintings with vital substance, she saw no reason for an artist to withdraw from the living world. Rilke’s dichotomy is false. Nevertheless, women today still struggle with “work-life balance.” And the female body remains a contested, politically charged site. Paula Modersohn-Becker, though no feminist, was the first painter to engage these issues, the first to depict the nude from a woman’s perspective. Difficult to place in the male-dominated art-historical cannon, her work continues to challenge preconceptions regarding the “feminine.”