Thursday, February 8, 2018

A Tribute to Paula Modersohn-Becker on her Birthday

Paula Modersohn-Becker Painting in the Garden, Otto Modersohn, July 19 1901

Today is the 142nd birthday of painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907!) She is one of my very favorite artists, which actually makes it difficult to write about her. There is so much I want to say that I have to rein myself in and sort carefully through the avalanche of  thoughts and feelings I have about her life and her work. Her work reaches out and grabs at my heart.

It is a sad fact for me that Modersohn-Becker did not seem to have created any artistic works showing herself or any other woman at work creating art or with the tools of her artistic trade close to hand. Those are my firm parameters for Women in The Act of Painting. While she portrayed women constantly and herself frequently (she was one of the first European artists, male or female, to depict herself nude) her self portraits mainly show her holding flowers or babies. And same for her portraits of other women and girls. These paintings speak eloquently to my heart, but are also a frustration for me, as the creator of the Women in the Act of Painting project. It does make me search harder, deeper and wider though, which can be part of the fun of doing this project, uncovering little known images. If anyone reading this finds a Modersohn-Becker WAP piece, a drawing, print or painting, please let me know!

I found one oil sketch of Modersohn-Becker painting, created by her husband Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), himself a really excellent painter. He was one of the co-founders of the Worpswede Artist's Colony where he and the younger Paula Becker met.  The colony was famed for its gorgeous gardens, and this painting was almost certainly painted there, probably en plein air. I don't have all the details about this piece despite hours of searching, and I'd love to know its dimensions or current location. If anyone knows, please get in touch! During their lifetimes, Otto Modersohn was by far the better known and more highly respected artist of the couple, but now his reputation is very much secondary to hers. No need to feel too sorry for the fellow however, as he does have an entire museum dedicated to his work! He is best known for his beautiful landscapes and pastoral scenes.

And, what an unalloyed thrill to see that Paula Modersohn-Becker is today's Google Doodle!  A Google Doodle is the biographical/historical image (with informational links) that decorates the Google search engine site, and which changes daily. This is the second time I've used a Google Doodle on WAP. The first time was last year's doodle celebrating the sculptor Edmonia Lewis! I was so grateful for that doodle because w/o it I didn't have a way to showcase Lewis using the WAP parameters: there are no art images of her at work. I am finding myself frequently thankful to the Google Doodle folks for their WAP help. Much appreciation to Google Doodle!

The young Paula Becker had to fight her family's expectations for her (they wanted her to become a teacher) in order to study art. While spending a summer at the Worpswede Art Colony with her friend, the sculptor Clara Westhoff (who later married Rainer Maria Rilke) Paula fell in love with the painter Otto Modersohn, a widower with a young child. They married and had a complicated relationship. Modersohn-Becker seemed afraid of becoming too enmeshed in the wifely domestic expectations of women at that time, fearing (correctly) that such would would limit her ability to do her art work. While she apparently doted on her stepdaughter and was a fond wife to Otto, she also frequently took long trips apart from the Modersohn household, studying in Paris, for instance. Her strong desire to experience pregnancy and motherhood, which can be seen in so many of her paintings, eventually led to her agree to becoming pregnant. The couple was joyful. But in a stroke of tragic irony, Paula Modersohn-Becker died of complications following the birth of her baby. She was thirty-four years old.

I urge you to read more about Paula Modersohn-Becker (there are several biographies) or simply do an image search for her work on-line. There is something so open and strong about her work. Earthy, literal, yet sublime, ineffable. Apparently simple, but actually complex. I love that combination. As a very young artist I copied a couple of paintings she did just for my own satisfaction, perhaps as a way to try and internalize some of her spirit. Maybe I will try that again! Yes, her life was cut short, but Modersohn-Becker was always trying new things and learning, and I suspect she always would have been, even had she lived a longer time. She was an explorer and and an innovator. Happy Birthday Paula!