GALERIE ST. ETIENNE | NOVEMBER 3, 2015 – MARCH 12, 2016
As the gallery essay points out, Paula Modersohn-Becker was more or less unrecognized as a painter when she died at the age of thirty-one in 1907. But her posthumous reputation rose quickly, in Germany today, she is looked on as a major presence in modern art (although awareness of her achievement is not so well established in America). Her life was a complicated one, in which the conventional demands of German middle-class existence conflicted with the artist’s real need to be independent and make a life for herself as a painter. Although she married Otto Modersohn, a painter in his own right, Modersohn-Becker could not accommodate his demands for a wife subservient to the chores and duties of daily life. Several trips to Paris eased her desire for an artistic atmosphere, but sadly her life ended much too early, due to complications from a childbirth she may well have felt ambivalent about. As the Galerie St. Etienne show demonstrates, despite the artist’s willingness, in the form of conventional subject matter, to negotiate the social proprieties of the time, it is also true that the painter stood her ground within the terms of her themes, finding a balance between tradition and her need to develop as a painter.
In the exhibition, two themes stand out: first, the study of the human figure, those of children and women being especially strong; and second, the attention Modersohn-Becker paid to nature. There is a quiet—but substantial—mysticism in the faces and the way the trees are arranged; one remembers that the painter’s good friend, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, was married to the great visionary poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work struck a blow for pure transcendence—indeed, all three knew each other well and worked together in the artist colony of Worpswede. At the same time, there is something marvelously solid about Modersohn-Becker’s studies of people. There is an earthy empathy that hovers between actual worldliness and a quiet, but genuine and accurate sense of the ethereal. Her portraits of both men and women tend to be rustic, unpretentious, yet they resonate in mysterious ways. In a charcoal drawing from 1898, named Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898) we can see Modersohn-Becker identifying strongly with her subject, who wears a light cap and a dark jacket. Her face is coarse but animated, and so we have a tribute to a common soul, who is nonetheless rendered with energy.
A later portrait of Modersohn-Becker’s sister Herma emphasizes the dignity and nearly regal bearing of the woman, who wears a prominent amber necklace. Her serious, handsome face and bearing is given directly toward the viewer, who has the chance to see the painter render her own family. Almost smiling, she gazes back at us in a sympathetic but also somber manner. We come back many times to Modersohn-Becker’s solemn, earnest view of people, so different from the lively, colorful Fauvists from contemporary France, whom she visited and learned from. It isn’t that her German manner is dour and humorless; rather, one senses a gravitas that is worlds away from light-spirited descriptions of society enjoying life. The painting Half-Length Portrait of a Girl in the Sun, Before a Wide Landscape (1897) is a marvelous study of a blonde child with red cheeks and orange sweater, standing in an open meadow with a thin strip of green and a gray sky in the background. She gazes off to the side somewhere beyond the picture, presenting an earnestness that is riveting and quite moving. In Modersohn-Becker’s work, the personality of her sitters is lit from within, and is not aligned with a particular activity. Her vision is particular to the person; one does not sense her imposing her own sensibility on the figure she describes.
Some of her more moving works are of trees, which take on a luminous, quick energy that supports a highly animated vision of nature. In the beautiful work, Apple Tree Against a Bright Sky (1900), the tree spreads out against a bright but cloud-ridden sky, dark leaves echoing the green ground that surrounds the trunk. While the painting is of a particular tree, there is something universal about its presence, something slightly untamed as well. The mixture of blue sky and white clouds is wildly painted, almost apocalyptic, so that the entire composition appears to be filled with energy. It is a picture whose subject matter moves beyond its stated theme. Another strong study of nature, Birch Trunk in Front of Heath Landscape (ca. 1901) concerns a whitish trunk rendered up close in the foreground, with a leafless tree behind it. There is an expanse of brown heath ending in a thin line of forest with a cloudy sky above. The visual interest of the picture stems from the close up of the birch, whose silvery-white bark stands out. Again, the presence of the picture is greater than the sum of its parts. Here, as with her remarkable studies of people, Modersohn-Becker sees into the inner life of things, painting visionary works of art.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.