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

She worked at fever pitch, pro­duc­ing 80 pic­tures in a year, and was dead by 31 – an in­tense and frag­men­tary ac­count of a unique artist

The Guardian - Review - - Review | Non-fiction - Olivia Laing Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is pub­lished by Canon­gate.

Paula Moder­sohn-Becker was the first woman to paint a naked self-por­trait – and while ap­par­ently preg­nant, at that – in 1906. She worked at fever pitch, be­moan­ing the waste of her first two decades and pro­duc­ing in her penul­ti­mate sum­mer a paint­ing every four or five days. Reg­u­larly de­scribed as an ex­pres­sion­ist, her por­traits don’t look like any­thing or any­one else. Her women are crude and ex­act, glow­ing with strange colours: Balthus as a fem­i­nist, Gau­guin by way of The Dark Crys­tal. She died in 1907 at the age of 31, hav­ing sold three paint­ings in her life­time, leav­ing be­hind a for­est of let­ters and di­aries.

Marie Dar­rieussecq, a French writer best known in the UK for her star­tling 1996 de­but novel Pig Tales , first came across Moder­sohn-Becker in an email in her junk folder, il­lus­trated with a small pic­ture of a woman breast­feed­ing. It was so un­fa­mil­iar it stopped her in her tracks. She couldn’t un­der­stand why she didn’t al­ready know about this Ger­man artist who painted real women, real be­hav­iour with such con­fi­dent frank­ness. Why was she not ex­hib­ited in Paris, the city she had made her home? “Do we have to as­sume that she did not have her universal visa?”

In Dar­rieussecq’s hands, Moder­sohnBecker’s story is both in­di­vid­ual and ex­em­plary: a fright­en­ing, en­er­gis­ing fa­ble that weirdly re­sem­bles a 19th­cen­tury ver­sion of Viv Al­ber­tine’s punk mem­oir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Mu­sic, Mu­sic, Mu­sic, Boys, Boys, Boys , with Sid Vi­cious re­cast as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Paula Becker be­gan to draw se­ri­ously at the age of 16. Her fa­ther in­sisted she train as a teacher, but a lucky in­her­i­tance al­lowed her to move to the artists’ colony Worp­swede, in Ger­many, later also home to Rilke, the only artist to truly grasp her merit. She had a knack for seiz­ing the mo­ment, tak­ing every chance that came her way.

In 1900 she made her first trip to Paris, study­ing draw­ing and anatomy. The city elec­tri­fied her, and she longed to share it. She wrote a bold let­ter to a mar­ried painter she’d be­come close to in Worp­swede, beg­ging him to join her, with or with­out his ill wife. Otto Moder­sohn ini­tially de­murred, not want­ing to ex­pose him­self to modern art. In the end, her en­thu­si­asm pre­vailed, and four months later, fol­low­ing the death of his wife, Becker was en­gaged to her.

The tran­si­tion from sin­gle woman to wife was salted with small hu­mil­i­a­tions. When she got en­gaged, her fam­ily sent her to a Ber­lin cook­ery school for two months, where she con­quered veal fric­as­see and meat­loaf. Her fa­ther wrote to tell her she must learn to for­get about her­self, his joy­ful daugh­ter, who had won first prize at the Académie Co­larossi, that she must re­lin­quish ego­tism. The his­tory of all women’s art: she didn’t re­lin­quish it.

On Easter Sun­day 1902, while cook­ing a roast, Moder­sohn-Becker paused to write a heart­felt note in her house­keep­ing book: “Mar­riage does not make one hap­pier. It takes away the il­lu­sion that had sus­tained a deep be­lief in a kin­dred soul.” That same year, af­ter com­plet­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary, ex­alted paint­ing of a girl in an or­chard, she wrote fiercely to her mother: “I am go­ing to be­come some­body.”

At first Moder­sohn sup­ported his wife’s am­bi­tions, de­scrib­ing her as “cer­tainly the best woman painter in Worp­swede”. But soon he was com­plain­ing to his di­ary about her house­keep­ing and her work, how she was “fall­ing prey to the er­ror of pre­fer­ring to make ev­ery­thing an­gu­lar, ugly, bizarre, wooden … mouths like wounds, faces like cretins”. In another en­try he wrote crossly: “Women will not eas­ily at­tain some­thing proper.”

Dar­rieussecq’s in­tense, frag­men­tary ac­count is at its best on Moder­sohnBecker’s es­capes, the snatched in­ter­ludes in Paris, where she could re­sume her life as a work­ing artist. Hot cho­co­late in her rented room, vis­its to the Lou­vre, buy­ing vi­o­lets and lunch­ing on fried eggs. Back home, she was hap­pi­est in Otto’s ab­sence, when she could live off pears and rice pud­ding, didn’t have to set the ta­ble, could read over her food. She painted pump­kins, cher­ries, ba­nanas, lemons, the ripe fruit Rilke would later de­scribe in his el­egy, “Re­quiem for a Friend”.

At 30 she left her hus­band. Her let­ters from Paris were full of re­quests for money: 200 marks to pay her rent, 60 francs for mod­els’ fees. Her stu­dio was in­fested with fleas, there was a heat­wave, but she kept work­ing: 80 pic­tures in 1906. As Rodin told her: “La tra­vaille, c’est mon bon­heur.”

In Septem­ber, she had a change of heart. She re­united with Otto and be­came preg­nant. On 2 Novem­ber 1907, af­ter two days of labour, she gave birth to a daugh­ter. For the next 18 days she was or­dered to stay in bed. At last she was al­lowed to re­join the world. A small party was planned. She braided her hair, pinned a rose to her house­coat, got out of bed and fell down dead, say­ing schade, a pity. The cause was an em­bolism, from ly­ing down for so long.

In “Re­quiem for a Friend”, Rilke wrote: “And at last you saw your­self as a fruit, you stepped / out of your clothes and brought your naked body / be­fore the mir­ror, you let your­self in­side / down to your gaze; which stayed in front, im­mense, / and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is.”

In Dar­rieussecq’s ac­count, Rilke’s sen­su­al­ity is tinged with hor­ror, doubly haunted by what hap­pened to Ger­many af­ter Moder­sohn-Becker’s death, and by the con­tin­u­ing lim­its to women’s lives. She sum­mons a heaven of de­tail, th­ese girls in their white em­pire-line dresses and flower gar­lands, ig­no­rant of what the fu­ture holds, rid­ing their bi­cy­cles through the sum­mer nights. Ex­plor­ing a beach where Moder­sohn-Becker hol­i­dayed, she writes: “Huge bub­bles of hot air hang in the trees. When you go in there, it’s like walk­ing into but­ter.”

Dar­rieussecq is in­ter­ested in this bub­ble, this strange, lost mo­ment in Ger­man his­tory, an idyll spanned and clar­i­fied by Moder­sohn-Becker’s short life, be­fore “the slaugh­ter­house of the 20th cen­tury” got un­der way. The post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of Moder­sohnBecker’s let­ters by her mother made her a star, with mul­ti­ple ex­hi­bi­tions and a mu­seum de­voted to her work. But in 1937, 70 of her paint­ings were purged from Ger­man mu­se­ums, ei­ther de­stroyed or ex­hib­ited as “de­gen­er­ate art”. The Nazi cri­tique was weirdly close to her hus­band’s: “Her vi­sion is so lack­ing in fem­i­nin­ity and so vul­gar … A re­volt­ing mix­ture of colours, of idi­otic fig­ures, of sick chil­dren, de­gen­er­ates, the dregs of hu­man­ity.”

The other hor­ror here is of be­ing a woman, penned up alive. In an aside, Dar­rieussecq de­scribes how in Ro­man times adul­ter­ous women were buried in the marshes around Worp­swede with their breasts fac­ing up, “their mouths open to the hor­ror of the peat”. Moder­sohn-Becker’s short life is mir­rored by the claus­tro­pho­bic fate of her best friend, the sculp­tor Clara Westhoff, who mar­ried Rilke, had a child and be­came mired in do­mes­tic poverty. Rilke so hated the baby cry­ing that it was taken in by Westhoff ’s mother. When the fam­ily re­united a year later, she didn’t recog­nise her par­ents.

Trun­cated lives, un­nec­es­sary lim­its. There’s only one thing to do next. Look at the girls Moder­sohn-Becker painted, with their slim arms, their strong heads set against the sky. As Dar­rieussecq puts it: “It is not about what th­ese young girls are dream­ing, but what they are think­ing … Th­ese girls are say­ing: ‘Leave us alone!’”

Trans­lated by Penny Hue­ston 176pp, Text, £12.99

To or­der Be­ing Here for £11.04 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Clock­wise from main: Self-por­trait with Hat and Veil (1906-07); Girl with Child (1902); the artist with her daugh­ter

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