Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist

Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist, by Diane Radycki, relates the personal story and artistic history of a woman that has much to offer today’s audiences.

Radycki’s book, which had its origins in a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, sees Modersohn-Becker as a pioneer and groundbreaker who was trying to navigate “having it all.”

Born in 1876 (she died in 1907), Modersohn-Becker’s childhood ran parallel to what Radycki terms the national debate “about women’s access to higher education and the liberal professions.” Her father supported education and wanted his daughter to be able to earn a living—because he didn’t assume that she would get married. He encouraged self-reliance for children of both sexes, considering it “ever critical.” Her mother, who had artistic interests, encouraged Modersohn-Becker saying, “It would give me the greatest joy if you were really to accomplish something, something more than the little dabbling that all girls do.”

Monetary gifts from relatives and a small inheritance from her godmother allowed Modersohn-Becker to pursue art lessons and an education. She attended the drawing and painting academy run by the Association of Women Artists, where Käthe Kollwitz had studied. In this environment, Modersohn-Becker was provided with role models of women artists as teachers, creative entities, and those in positions of authority. Girls saw they could have a future as art teachers, rather than as a governess.

The society and world events that Modersohn-Becker was shaped by are of intrinsic interest to Radycki. She sets her subject not only within a historical and sociological context, but also draws a compelling picture of the people Modersohn-Becker associated with. Primary in the narrative are her relationships with her best friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff, and Westhoff’s future husband, the writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke. A year after Modersohn-Becker’s death, Rilke would write his tribute, Requiem for a Friend.

Modersohn-Becker’s relationship to Westhoff was primary to both women. Yet Westhoff’s marriage to Rilke, and her new responsibilities, would strain the bond. Westhoff gave birth eight months after her nuptials. Finances for the newly-weds became unstable when Rilke’s father cut off his stipend. When Modersohn-Becker was puzzled by the shift in their friendship, Westhoff explained that mothering a newborn did not allow her to “simply get on my bicycle and ride off.”

Modersohn-Becker would experience her own realizations about conjugal life when she married the artist Otto Modersohn, who was eleven years her senior. She met him at the artists’ colony Worpswede, where she fully entered into the artistic life—without parental constraints.

Modersohn was a 36-year-old widower with a small daughter. There was an initial attraction between the two. However, for Modersohn-Becker, this was liberally mixed with a dose of pragmatism. She clearly understood that Modersohn had a child and a household that needed to be overseen. Yet, she would receive a source of economic support, thereby not needing to work outside the home. It would be an economically comfortable and safe situation in which to pursue her art. The spouses would retain their own studios. It appeared that the bond of art would seal the deal.

Within a year after taking her vows, Radycki relates that Modersohn-Becker wrote the following about matrimony: “It is my experience that marriage doesn’t make one happier. It takes away the illusion that previously sustained one’s whole being that one would have a soul mate.”

Throughout the book, the reader follows Modersohn-Becker as she struggles with the contemporary conundrum of trying to “have it all.” This is reflected in multiple identity conflicts that included the various permutations of her name, her consideration of single motherhood, and her belief that women artists “have it harder.” Indeed, a 1901 cartoon posited, “There are two kinds of women painters. The ones who get married and the others. And neither have talent.”

After increased emotional agitation and dissatisfaction with her married life, Modersohn-Becker left her husband and stepdaughter. She became an example of the “new woman,” described by Radycki as a “middle-class woman who left home and family for a life and career of her own.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t go swimmingly. Modersohn-Becker was constantly contending with money issues. She was discontent with life when she was not painting. Ultimately, she decided to return to her husband’s household. She wrote to Westhoff, “Whether I’m wagering smartly is up to the future to determine. The main thing is peace for my work, and that I have most of all while at Otto Modersohn’s side.” Radycki characterizes this decision as emanating from “warring forces of exhaustion and ambition—a ruthless retrenchment.”

It is revealed through a letter to Westhoff that for five years Modersohn-Becker’s marriage had been sexless. However, having a child became a condition of her return to the domestic nest. Modersohn-Becker became pregnant, but the delivery was difficult. Eighteen days later, she died at the age of thirty-one.

Radycki introduces her subject stating, “Modersohn-Becker painted the life she was living as a woman and an artist.” It is Radycki’s premise that Modersohn-Becker was a “pioneer and groundbreaker,” one of the key early German modernists—the “missing piece in the history of modernist imagery.”

Modersohn-Becker, without doubt, broke numerous barriers. She was, Radycki emphasizes, the first woman artist to challenge the traditional representation of the female body in art. She was the first to paint herself nude and to do self-portraits while pregnant. An extensive part of her oeuvre was devoted to compositions of mothers and children who are naked. Radycki believes that there is no male precedent for what Modersohn-Becker was doing—and that it can only be compared to 20th century body imagery. Modersohn-Becker took the nude out of the arena of the male gaze and male desire. Radycki writes, “Her female bodies defy the idealized and eroticized nude,” as she “shifted paradigms.” For Radycki, Modersohn-Becker is not just another woman in the art chronology. Rather, she is the first woman to paint herself nude when this was not a subject at all. Modersohn-Becker is taking and owning. It is something that hasn’t been seen before. The result is a legacy as a major influence on female artists from Frida Kahlo to Cindy Sherman.

Three-quarters of Modersohn-Becker output was of the figure, with a strong concentration on the premenstrual girl and the post-menopausal woman. Radycki qualifies these non-procreating females as “society’s powerless groups.” Illustrated in the book is an 1899 life size drawing entitled, Large Standing Girl Nude, in Left Profile. The young girl, with arms folded against her flat chest, has a slightly distended stomach and a resolute facial expression. She is clearly grounded in her own space and aware of her own agency. It is a striking contrast to the young girls in the world of Balthus.

An important observation that Radycki makes is how Modersohn-Becker has been held to a different yardstick than male painters, especially those who also died at a young age. In a ten-year period, Modersohn-Becker created over seven hundred paintings and hundreds of drawings. Van Gogh, who produced eight hundred paintings in a decade, was lauded as prolific. Why was Modersohn-Becker evaluated far more harshly than male artists who died at her age—or younger—such as Georges Seurat or Egon Schiele? Radycki points out that the work of those two artists are not “lamented as unfinished, with its implication of juvenilia and unsecured categories.”

Modersohn-Becker is clearly seen by Radycki within the framework of “the personal is political.” She analyzes the difference between Modersohn-Becker’s life experience and that of her male counterparts. Referencing feminist theory Radycki puts forth, “Time for women is constantly interrupted.” In the composition, Still Life with Haddock, Radycki underscores the essence of the painting within the sphere of Modersohn-Becker’s domestic chores. Her family dinner is wrapped in the newspaper it was purchased in. Adjacent are lemons that will probably be used in the preparation. It wasn’t unrelated. She painted her dinner before cooking and serving it.

Radycki was the editor and translator of The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker. An art historian who has made women artists from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries her purview, Radycki shows that she was uniquely positioned to delve into the psychology of Modersohn-Becker.

Radycki’s text is an incisive document that will speak to a range of audiences: art historians, feminists, artists, and those looking to the narrative of a creative woman—to help contemplate and forge their own future paths.

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