We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

"To sleep among my paintings is beautiful" · 31 December 05

Dear Anne,

As you know I am a lover of pictures. I began, but have not yet finished writing about the cartoons in the New Yorker. I mean to return to these again before long. Today I send you one of the first of what I hope will be a continuing series of sketches of the lives and work of some of my favorite artists. I will make an effort to feature women.

First up is the iconic-like and quiet work of Paul Modersohn-Becker’s Still Life with Blue and White Porcelain (1909):

We see the corner of a table. As Nancy Heller (see below) says, "cast shadows" are "strong design elements" in the picture. I see peace, dignity, a dulled or prosaic radiance (note the fleur-de-lis on the walls) solaces us with everyday beautiful art.

Paula Modernsohn-Becker (1876) was born towards the end of the eon-long era where women died young from childbirth. To coin Angela Carter’s phrases in a of Edward Shorter’s A History of Women’s Bodies (in Shaking a Leg, ed. Jenny Uglow [Penguin, 1997], pp. 70-71), Modersohn-Becker was born towards the close of

millenia upon millennia of indescribable and largely unacknowledged pain which women have undergone solely on account of the physiology of sexual difference, at the uselessness of both academic and folk medicine in the face of the commonest gynaecological and obstretric mishaps in the past, and at the institutionalized mistreatment of women by their men folk.

Of this latter category, one example from among endless many should suffice—of a 49 year old French women whose advanced uterine cancer was complicated by a similarly advanced pregnancy, forced upon her by the sexual importunity of her husband ... (Her doctor was aghast).

Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, age 31, three weeks after the birth of a daughter.

Her story is moving. In Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (NYU Press, 1976), a survey where usually no more than a page is given to a particular artist, Karen Peterson and J. J. Wilson devote 4 pages to Modersohn-Becker (pp. 108-111).

She was born in Dresden, studied art for a year in London at age 16. Her parents also paid for a year of study at Bremen, but they were strongly against her becoming a painter; they wanted her to be a kindergarten teacher. When her first exhibit at Bremen in 1897 received poor reviews, they withdrew support, but shortly after that she married a landscape painter, Otto Modersohn, with the intention of being able to pursue her art as well as a fulfilling life.

The marriage and her subsequent experience with the friends her, the new place (a rural art colony in Worpswede) and new friends were disillusioning experiences. She was given Otto’s daughter, Elisabeth, aged 8, and the task of making a home for him, and little time to pursue her work—for all that her husband professed to admire her work enormously. From her diary:

My experience is that happiness does not increase in marriage. Marriage removes the illusion, deeply embedded somewhere there is a soul-mate. One feels twice as strong what it means not to be understood, because one’s previous life was a driving desire to find another being, one that might understand. But might it not be better without this illusion, eye to eye with the great truth. I write this in my kitchen account book, sitting in my kitchen, preparing a roast of veal, Easter Sunday, 1902.

She did manage 4 trips to Paris though (between 1900 and 1907), and was much taken with Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin and Matisse. Peterson and Wilson quote a letter where she questions the naturalistic style and large round outlines and wrote rather "what counts are my personal feelings." She wanted to record the textures of things (matte objects, flowers, her husband’s forehead, fabrics). Like Mary Cassatt, she loved the styles dependent on Japanese traditions prevalent in Paris of the day. She was also impressed by Egyptian art which she wanted to imitate for striking form.

Her best friend had for a time been the sculptor Clara Westhoff who, with her, made romantic impression on Rainer Maria Rilke—though he never mentioned either of them in a memoir on the artists at Worpsmede. Clara and Rilke married, and the two women became somewhat estranged. This experience left a lasting hurt. As Lyn Mikel Brown writes (in Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection among Girls [NYU Press, 1903]), many girls and women "depend on close, intimate friendships to get them through life. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets" (p. 4). When the pairing of girls break up, consequent on one of them becoming a male’s partner (as is common), the lasting memory of this betrayal and dismissal of them can be devastating and is not forgotten.

Modersohn-Becker also began to realize that she had no space and time to become herself from the narrowness of attitudes towards women and art in this colony.

So in February 1906 she took the brave step of leaving her husband: she had little money, and her parents were further angered. Peterson and Wilson reprint a pathetically grateful (!) letter to the mother for not being overly angry. She begs her mother to understand she rejoices in her "new life"; however meagre her circumstances, she writes "I live the most intensely happy time of my life" now. But the pressure from the husband was also intense, and she had no means of support; she returned, was impregnated and dead in less than 2 years.

Of 259 complete paintings she had sold one. She left all these, plus many etching and drawings. Peterson and Wilson say her style was influenced by German expressionism too, but remained not understood. It seems to me what was not understood or liked by (just about all male) reviewers was her typical subject and treatment of that subject: peasant and tribal women presented monumentally, with minimum distortion towards a Matisse stylization and unsexualized. We see plain women in adolescence, poverty, old age, and pregnant. They sit or lay down like slightly flattish or still statues amid flowers, vases, beads, crowns and props for festivals. To quote Peterson and Wilson again, these images of women

recur in her many self-portraits with the same unflinching gaze within and without in icon-like paintings. Paula Modersohn-Becker is constructing a mythology for us all out of the still moments in women’s lives."

If you read about Modersohn-Becker in Nancy Heller’s anondyne Women Artists: An Illustrated History (3rd edition, Abbeville Press, 1987, pp. 114-116), and elsewhere what you come across are a few deliberately primitive Matisse-influenced women peasants, which Heller does describe as "affecting" and often "lyrical." I have only small black-and-white reproductions of these in my books; I do have one of a naked mother and child laying down side-by-side on a bed (you can see the whole figures and one of Rilke (all square shapes and sudden hard diagonals). The only color reproduction is the still life I’ve sent to you in this letter.

I end this brief life-and-works sketch with Modersohn-Becker’s moving statement in her diary quoted in Wilson and Peterson:

To sleep among my paintings is beautiful. My studio is very light during moonlit nights. Upon waking I quickly jump up and I look at my work: my paintings are what first meet my eye.


Posted by: Ellen

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