August 2017


‘Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker’ by Marie Darrieussecq

By Helen Elliott
Trans. Penny Hueston; Text Publishing; $24.99

In 1907, in a small German town, a young woman prepares to get up for the first time since giving birth to her daughter 18 days earlier. A little party has been organised, and the house is filled with flowers and candles. She asks for a mirror in bed and braids her hair; she pins some roses to her dressing gown. Then she stands briefly before falling to the floor. She dies of an embolism, uttering just one word: Schade. A pity. It was schade and its myriad ramifications that turned the French writer Marie Darrieussecq’s glittering attention to one of the most significant artists of whose name you have never heard.

Paula Becker was the third child of six in an educated upper-middle-class family. She studied drawing in Germany, mixed with the avant-garde, yearned for Paris, went there, but returned and married Otto Modersohn, who had a three-year-old daughter. “In marriage one becomes doubly misunderstood,” she later wrote. Her husband was good but conventional. Paula was uninterested in being either. She was interested in becoming who she might be.

At the turn of last century there was an extraordinary flourishing of art in Paris: Cézanne, Gauguin, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso and Rodin all worked within a few blocks of one another. For the rest of her life, whenever she could, Paula Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris. She knew the artists and dealers, and if she saw their work they also saw hers, those startling, expressive paintings. Nobody wanted to buy or exhibit her work but she was undeterred. She thought a lot about the tension between motherhood and individual creativity. Must one always cancel out the other? She was the first female artist to paint naked self-portraits – unashamed and unadorned except for flowers or an amber necklace.

Modersohn-Becker might have dissolved into anonymity except for her writing. At her mother’s insistence her spirited letters were published in Germany in the 1920s. They interested influential people and her work was reassessed. She is now mentioned as one of the most important modernists.

Darrieussecq has written this painful story because of her own sorrow at not knowing Paula Modersohn-Becker and of not knowing of her; sorrow, too, at her early death and truncated creativity. Darrieussecq looks squarely at a subject that is often too brutal to explore. Genius and motherhood cannot sit well together. No one expressed it quite as eloquently as Modersohn-Becker in her paintings. She died when she was 31. Her last painting was that traditional women’s painting: a bouquet of sunflowers and hollyhocks.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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