The self-portraits of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) continue to fascinate and inspire both artists and writers alike. Details of her short but intense life capture the imagination, with her trips from rural Germany to the bustling art schools of Paris, her attempts to juggle motherhood with life as a painter, and her bold experimental approach to art.
On Modersohn-Becker’s death, her friend Rainer Maria Rilke was inspired to write a tribute in the form of a poem, “Requiem for a Friend”. No doubt drawing on the imagery of Mosersohn-Becker’s later nude self-portraits, this celebrated poet included the lines:
“Women too you saw as fruit, and children,
impelled from inside toward their destined forms.
At last you saw yourself as fruit, you took
yourself out of your clothes and brought yourself
before the mirror, then let yourself go in…
So free of curiosity at last,
your gaze, so free of owning, of such true
poverty, wanting not even yourself: holy.”
In recent years, the writer and journalist Sue Hubbard was inspired to write a novel about Paula Modersohn-Becker and her daughter, Mathilde, “Girl in White” (2015). Hubbard’s novel draws on the artist’s diaries and letters, as well as imagery from the paintings, to create an evocative story of a daughter revisiting the life of her mother. This imaginative story is all the more haunting as the artist died just days after giving birth to Mathilde.
The cover features my favourite painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-portrait on my sixth wedding anniversary (1906). In this painting, Modersohn-Becker painted herself both as both an artist, pregnant with ideas, and as a mother-to-be.
In 2016, the film Paula was released in Germany (director Christian Schwochow, The Match Factory GmbH, Cologne). Unfortunately this film is not yet available on the open market with English subtitles, but hopefully it will only be a matter of time until it is. I have been lucky enough to watch this film with English subtitles and found it utterly compelling. To see a few minutes of Paula (with English subtitles), click on the link below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXegTcCiQr8
The painter Chantal Joffe will be exhibiting some of her own work alongside paintings by Paula Modersohn-Becker in the Lowry, Manchester (19 May – 2 September 2018). Joffe’s work is frank and direct, recalling intimate and personal glimpses from her own life. In the painting below, Self-Portrait Pregnant (2) (2004, oil on board, 29.2 x 21.8cm), Joffe draws inspiration from Modersohn-Becker’s Self-portrait on my sixth wedding anniversary.
Paula Modersohn-Becker was perhaps the first woman to paint herself nude and pregnant. The joint allusion to the creation of art and the creation of life is an obvious draw for a woman artist who has also had children. This combination has certainly been of interest to my own practice as an artist. Last year I painted an image of my own daughter, who is herself an artist. Taking Modersohn-Becker’s pregnant self-portrait as my model, I painted my daughter within the outline of a horned animal, which itself recalls the form of a uterus.
Although this obviously looks nothing like Modersohn-Becker’s self-portrait, her painting was in the forefront of mind when I created it. This, I suppose, is the nature of he inspiration; the initial idea can be passed on from generation to generation, under various guises.
On the theme of inspiration and the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, I wrote an article for the Burlington last year (“Paula Modersohn-Becker’s self-portraits and the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti”, August 2017, no.1373, vol.159) in which I argued that she was influenced in her painting of Self-portrait on my sixth wedding anniversary by the Annunciation paintings of Dante Rossetti. I find it absolutely that fascinating that both make and female artists have been inspired by a joint reference to artistic production and biological reproduction. However unlikely it may sound, I am currently researching Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos which I believe are also linked to this combined theme. And how did I come to look at the work of Michelangelo? It was through my initial research into Paula Modersohn-Becker and her respect for Michelangelo, as described in her letters…
“*To her parents [June 8, 1900]
…The sculptor Rodin has opened a special exhibition, the great, profound lifework of a sixty-year-old [for whom the poet Rainer Maria Rilke worked as a secretary]. He has captured life and the spirit of life with enormous power. For me, he is comparable only to Michelangelo, and in some ways I even feel closer to him. That such human beings exist on earth makes living and striving worthwhile.”