BY KELLIE SABIN
The Paula Modersohn-Becker retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris has been a long time coming. This is the first time, since her death in 1907, that there has been such a comprehensive and thorough solo exhibition of her work.
Paula Modersohn-Becker was born in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As an adult she was creating work at an important moment of art history. The modern was about to begin and it is precisely this radical sensibility that Modersohn-Becker tapped into through her work. She knew art was her calling and made it her profession and passion. During her lifetime a women had a narrow set of parameters to operate within. She blew the doors wide open and started creating art on her own terms. For most of her artistic career she was based within an artist’s colony in Worpsewede, a small village outside Bremen in north Germany.
The colony was founded by two Dusseldorf academicians, Fritz Mackensen and Otto Modersohn (her future husband), in order to escape the urban sprawl and paint landscapes outdoors as French artists had been doing for the last few decades. But Worpsewede would prove to be too small to contain Modersohn-Becker. She was always drawn, time and again, to Paris, and was inspired by the work of Rodin, Gauguin and Cezanne.
This exhibition presents a full and varied picture of Modersohn-Becker’s creative output. Housed in the impressive Palais de Tokyo complex built for the Paris world fair in 1900 (which Paula herself attended) the museum feels like a fitting space for this show. The works are grouped both thematically and then chronologically.
Upon entering the exhibition, we are greeted by an oversized photograph of the artist, which serves to remind us that she was working during a challenging time for artists; the advent of photography. Without the need for pictorial representation, artists were free to use their art as a means of expression and for Modersohn-Becker, this meant to represent what she called ‘the gentle vibration in things’.
The show begins with her early work including and leading on to her landscapes. However, the canvasses really seem to come to life when she paints figures. Her rather bleak representation of the northern German landscape is transformed by the inclusion of a child. Her ‘Girl Playing the Flute in the Forest of Birch Trees’ is a magical and strange image that seems to have its roots in something far older. Modersohn-Becker had an interest in the African, Indonesian and Egyptian art that would become such an important element of Modernism, especially in the art of Picasso and Gauguin.
Modersohn-Becker often painted children and they are presented without the sickly sweet sentimentality of earlier nineteenth century artists. Her children seem old before their years and stare out from the canvas, fixing the viewer in an extraordinary way which is challenging and yet simultaneously recognises the humanity of both the viewer and the viewed. The curator has presented a number of her paintings of children including a full size drawing of a child that is beautifully rendered in terms of shading and modelling of the figure. The painting shows the skills she acquired during her years of study in London, Berlin and of course, Paris.
Also included are the powerful ‘Mother and Child’ series of paintings, which were created between 1901 and before her own pregnancy in 1907. These images were revolutionary as both mother and child are nude and presented in a human, secular and non-idealised way that would not be attempted again until the second half of the twentieth century. The exhibition also shows the artist’s preparatory sketches for the series, illustrating how Modersohn-Becker worked and offering an insight into her thought processes.
The artist painted herself regularly and her nude self-portrait is possibly the most radical image she created. Hung at the central point in the exhibition, the artist presents herself semi-nude on her wedding anniversary. Women’s naked bodies had always been currency in the western tradition of art. Through her choice of subject matter, either young girls, older women or herself, Modersohn-Becker overcame the traditional power relations between the (usually male) artist and (often naked) female subject. Her dignified rendering allows a new kind of equality between the viewer, subject and artist.
The exhibition shows a progression from her earliest works and preparatory sketches through to her more mature works at the end of the exhibition. The exhibition includes many fascinating photographs of the artist and her family and handwritten notes, which add another layer of connection to the artist herself.
Modersohn-Becker created over 700 works of art within a ten-year period and took art in a new direction. Her output was cut short by her tragically early death shortly after the birth of her daughter in 1907. This extensive and thoughtful exhibition brings her work to a wider public and should help this courageous and important artist to become the household name that she deserves to be.