As you know, I am a great fan of Stuart Miller-Osborne, I came across this wonderful article he wrote some time ago and thought you might like to read it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Paula Modersohn Becker (A Short Life)
I am of the opinion that every time that you enter an antiques shop or arcade that you leave knowing (maybe unconsciously) a little more. It may have been that odd shaped inkwell or that oriental wall hanging that took your fancy. Sometimes one has a “Eureka” moment when something hits you between the eyes and you wonder how you have lived without the knowledge throughout the years.
I have had a few but, one of the first is one that has stayed with me for nearly forty years. In late 1973 I decided to visit some of the Charles Holden underground stations in London. I had ticked a couple off of my list when I found myself in Southgate. It was when I was searching for a café to have a cup of tea that I chanced upon an antique shop. As the day was getting colder I decided to pop in to have a look.
It was when I was looking at a few old prints, I came across a small battered (the frame was broken) print of a woman wearing an amber necklace and holding a flower. It immediately attracted me although I did not know who the artist was. The owner of the shop noted that he thought the artist was German but was not sure who had painted the work.
I cannot remember how much I paid for the print but if I remember my later cup of tea was more expensive. In 1973 there was no internet so researching anything was quite hard work. I looked through various art books but found no trace of the artist until one day I had a brainwave and decided to go to the Tate Gallery in Pimlico. It was there that I met a very helpful curator who told me that the artist was the short lived Paula Modersohn Becker. He recommended a couple of art books (neither of which were in English) but it was a starting point. Within weeks I had found out a great deal about Paula and also discovered a poet that I still study, Rainer Maria Rilke.
Paula (Becker) was born in Dresden in 1876 to an enlightened family who, to an extent, encouraged her interest in the arts. In 1895 she attended an exhibition of the paintings by Worpswede group of artists. This back to nature school of artists made a big impression on the young Paula and by 1897 she decided to join the group at Worpswede in Northern Germany (some fifteen or so miles from Bremen) in 1898 she settled there permanently.
The Worpswede school of artists had quite a romanticised view of the countryside and countryside life. And after a while Paula began to reject their values and respond more to spiritual values that realistic subjects could project. She was attracted by Paris and left for the capital on the 31st December 1899 arriving there on the first day of the new century.
1900 was a very busy year for Paula, she had been rapidly seduced by Paris but returned to Worpswede as she was engaged to Otto Modersohn a fellow painter. It was during this time that she met Rilke for the first time. They were attracted to each other but as Paula was engaged to Otto he soon became romantically involved with Paula’s best friend the sculptress Clara Westhoff. Both couples married in 1901 and Clara gave birth the following year. Sadly the marriage faded during the following year. Paula and Otto stayed together but she had a restless artistic spirit.
In 1903 she returned to Paris on her own and again in 1905. This placed great strain on the marriage. Whilst he respected her art, Otto was quite traditional and by 1906 Paula had left for what she thought was the final time. She had always been close to Rilke and during the early part of that year they spent a lot of time together. This was a very productive time for Paula and she painted her memorable portrait of Rilke during this year. Rilke believed that some women artists were not meant to bear children. The creation of their art would be their lasting offspring. Paula did not necessarily agree with this. She wanted children but felt there was a great deal of work to be created before she could contemplate having and caring for children.
Not to be put off by his wife’s frequent visits to Paris, Otto travelled to the capital in the autumn of that year pleading with Paula to return to Worpswede. She was financially dependent on Otto and a great deal of pressure was being applied for her to return. In the spring of 1907 she returned to Worpswede. She was also pregnant. On the 2nd November 1907 Paula gave birth to a daughter Mathilde. Eighteen short days later on the 20th November 1907 she died, the victim of an embolism. During her short working life she had completed some six hundred paintings and well over a thousand sketches.
Rilke was shattered by Paula’s death and over a few frantic nights ( October 31st - November 2nd 1908) wrote the haunting Requiem for a Friend as a tribute to her (there are various translations on the internet and it is well worth a read).
The reason I like Paula’s work is really personal to me. There is an incredible stillness to her work. I can see the influences of other artists but there is an originality that bites you as you view her paintings. Her painting of Rilke is almost mask like, his eyes are featureless but see everything. It is a portrait of silence and of noise. Her self portraits are searching and very honest but incredibly soft. I could write chapters about her paintings but I will let you make up your own mind.
Sometime in the future I plan to visit Worpswede. A lecturer I once knew visited the area in the 1980s and told me that it was bleak even in high summer. I have seen photographs of Worpswede and it seems a place of wild moors and wild brushes (A place that Emil Nolde would have appreciated). From those images and from Paula’s landscapes it appears to be a place that welcomes you and expels you at the same time.
I no longer have my print as the frame soon fell to bits and I placed the work into an art book which I unwittingly gave away a number of years ago. I still have a number of books of poems by Rilke which I purchased at the time and since. If you are interested I do urge you to read his Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus at least.
As far as I am aware ( I may be wrong) there are no paintings by Paula in this country, but there is a museum in Bremen dedicated to her work. If you like her paintings, as I do then prints are available on the internet and there are a number of fine books (thankfully in English) to be found.
If you are ever in Bremen and have the time, then do pop into the museum, perhaps I will meet you there and we can compare our thoughts.
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