BE­ING HERE: THE LIFE OF PAULA MODERSOHN-BECKER

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED -

Marie Dar­rieussecq (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-mid­dle­class fam­ily. She stud­ied draw­ing in Ger­many, mixed with the avant­garde, 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 Moder­sohnBecker 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 Moder­sohnBecker in her paint­ings. She died when she was 31. Her last paint­ing was that tra­di­tional women’s paint­ing: a bou­quet of sun­flow­ers and hol­ly­hocks.

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