Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Semiotext(e), 2017)
The portrait’s subject, a young woman with a snub nose in three-quarter profile, stares back at her viewer, the wide-set brown eyes direct but inscrutable. Something wry tugs at the corners of her mouth, leaving her with neither a smile nor a frown. Her hair is wrapped atop her head, the better for us to see her long neck and sloped shoulders, which are bare. In fact, she is nude to the waist, where only a gossamer cloth appears to conceal her lower half. Small, pointed breasts jut in opposite directions, and a large, amber-beaded necklace rests between them. The woman’s belly also thrusts outward, and she cradles it, the protective and universal gesture of a pregnant woman. The ambient light of the canvas is golden and enveloping, and seems to emanate from the amber beads of the necklace, and also her pastel skin. This is Self-Portrait on Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906) by the German Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn- Becker. And as Marie Darrieussecq writes of it in Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula M. Becker (Semiotext(e), 2017), “Take note: it is the first time. The first time that a woman has painted herself naked.”
Minna Hermine Paula Becker, born in 1876, was raised in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood of Dresden, the third of Carl and Mathilde Becker’s seven children. They were a loving and urbane family, the parents encouraging their children’s intellectual pursuits, even as they wished for the daughters to be trained in the “three Ks” of early twentieth century German society: Kirche, Kinder, Küche—church, children, kitchen. As a teenager, Paula discovered an affinity for drawing, and appealed to her father to allow her to begin studying art in earnest. He agreed on the condition that she obtain a teaching degree, so that she might also have a practical skill. Darrieussecq begins Modersohn- Becker’s story here, at the moment of her graduation in 1895 with a diploma in education, and just as she is about to embark on the art classes that will form the foundation of her painting career. Her earliest years are little recounted, and when they are the events are mainly anecdotal. The reader may wonder how this omitted childhood affected the artist’s perceptions and motivations, but Darrieussecq does not allow for such lingering rumination on the subject. For from that moment in 1895, though she could not have known it, Paula Modersohn-Becker would live only another twelve years, dying tragically of an embolism at the age of thirty-one, nineteen days after giving birth to her first and only child, Mathilde. Darrieussecq instead focuses her text on this brief adulthood in a text that is as fleeting as her subject’s life.
And what a magnificent and terrible twelve years Modersohn-Becker had. She moved to Worpswede, near Bremen, in the northwest of Germany, which was in her time a well-known artist’s colony. There, she be- came lifelong friends with the artist Heinrich Vogeler, sculptor Clara Westhoff, and Westhoff ’s eventual hus- band, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In Worpswede she also met Otto Modersohn, a painter eleven years her senior who would become her husband in 1901. It was a tumultuous marriage, with Modersohn-Becker leaving her husband frequently and for extended periods in order to live and work in Paris. Darrieussecq alludes to their sexual difficulties—Modersohn-Becker’s letters and diaries seem to indicate that the mar- riage was unconsummated for several years, possibly due to Modersohn’s physical inability. In a sometimes-curious choice, Darrieussecq frequently paraphrases quotations from these writings, which were widely published a de- cade after Modersohn- Becker’s death, rather than cite them directly. Perhaps this was a sty- listic decision—exact quotations may have posed an aesthetic burden upon the otherwise buoyant, impressionistic quality of Darrieussecq’s portrait—but it has the unfortunate effect of sometimes muting Modersohn-Becker’s voice and rendering parts of the narrative oblique. When she does occasionally reproduce the artist’s words, the effect is impactful. Darrieussecq quotes Modersohn-Becker’s letter to her aunt, written while she was falling in love with Otto Modersohn: “I am such a complicated person, always so trembling and intense, that such calm hands will do me a world of good.” And in a letter to Modersohn himself, during a separation: “I do not want you as my husband. I do not want it. Accept this fact. Don’t torture yourself any longer.” Modersohn-Becker’s can- did, pragmatic, and often blunt proclamations stand in contrast to the veiled interpretations with which Darrieussecq shrouds so many other of Modersohn- Becker’s pronouncements. She writes in her acknowl- edgments that the book “was my gesture of love to [Modersohn-Becker].” Darrieussecq’s sympathy for the artist is plain: her text is riddled with moments where she interjects recollections and impressions from her own life that have been brought up for her while she considers Modersohn-Becker. A discussion of the painting Reclining Mother and Child (1906)—a work that depicts a woman breastfeeding her baby— prompts a digression from Darrieussecq on her own experience of pregnancy and new motherhood, for instance. Passages like this make one wonder whether the deep affinity the writer feels for her subject at times prevents her from fully explicating the more personal incidents of the artist’s life in their own terms, rather than through the interpretive lens of Darrieussecq’s own experience.
Motherhood and its wonders, as well as its anx- ieties and limitations, are an underlying thread of Darrieussecq’s telling. Even as the other young women of her circle began having children, Modersohn-Becker confessed in her journal that she was not yet ready to become a mother. On the other hand, she doted on Otto Modersohn’s two-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, treating her as her own and even immortalizing her in one of her first truly mature paintings, Elsbeth in the Brunjes Garden (1902), of which Darrieussecq writes:
Paula abandoned perspective. Elsbeth is flat against the plain. She is exactly the same height as the foxglove. The chickens are in front of her chest. The grass, the woods and the sky constitute three strips of color. Her feet are in the roots. Her face is forever tilted toward childhood. Her dress is an explosion of white. Not a single shadow. How did Paula give those little cheeks, those little arms, the soft, round texture that is absent from the rest of the painting? It took her twenty-seven years—her whole life.
As this excerpt makes plain, Darrieussecq’s descrip- tions of Modersohn-Becker’s work is sometimes pains- taking in detail, rendering in words a painting of her own. Notably, the book contains no images of either the artist or her paintings, so the author’s descriptions become especially important to the reader, who is dependent on them for a sense of what the canvases actually look like.
In the end, it was motherhood that became Modersohn-Becker’s undoing. Her daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, was born November 2, 1907. The birth was especially painful and taxing. The doctor ordered the artist to remain confined to her bed afterwards, and when at last she was allowed to rise eighteen days later, she collapsed almost immediately. An embolism, which had formed in her leg during the enforced immobility, rushed through her body, killing her almost instantly. “As she collapses, she says, ‘Schade,’” Darrieussecq writes. “Her last word. ‘A pity.’”
Darrieussecq presents Modersohn-Becker as accomplished as fellow German Expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Paul Klee and other contemporaries like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. She depicts an early feminist—a woman who struggled against every conformity expected of women in turn-of-the-century Germany in order to pursue her art. A painter who, despite all this, fell through the cracks of art history simply because she was a woman, and who died “as women used to die in the old days, you died an old-fashioned death in the warm house, the death of women in childbirth,” as Rilke put it in one of his most famous poems, “Requiem for a Friend,” written for Modersohn-Becker a year after her passing.
Being Here is Everything should be read less as a definitive biography than as a tender, interpretative meditation by Darrieussecq. Through her interpretive paraphrasing of the artist’s words, her textual narration of the paintings, and her omission of any visual reproductions of them (as well as of most of their titles), Darrieussecq writes a specific version of Modersohn-Becker’s life. Though not a book of rigorous scholarship, she nonetheless makes a compelling and lyrical case for resuscitating Modersohn-Becker’s reputation, and for exposing her paintings to a wider audience. As at long last we begin to color in the annals of art history with artists who once sat outside the traditional canon, the tapestry becomes all the more vivid with the inclusion of Modersohn-Becker’s work.