Paula Modersohn-Becker: When Life Imitates Art

The name Paula Modersohn-Becker may not say much to you outside of Germany, but at 30 years old she was the first woman to paint herself in the nude, in Self-Portrait at Sixth Wedding Anniversary.

Here, one quarter turned with her face flushed, she exposes two small, perky breasts crowned by an amber necklace, one of her favorite pieces of jewelry. Her hands rest protectively on her swollen belly, the roundness of her stomach suggesting a 4-5 month pregnancy. With a traditional middle part hairstyle, large, sweet eyes and a rough-edged nose reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Modersohn-Becker presents herself as a gentle embodiment of marital bliss, the muted colors of her skin barely distinguishable from the wallpaper behind her.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait at Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906). Oil and tempera on cardboard. Böttcherstraße Museum, Bremen, Germany

Even though her features are not those of a classic beauty, there’s something comforting and wholesome about this portrait, like the touch of freshly washed linen or the sun-drenched scent of a summer peach. Modersohn-Becker’s appeal, both on and off canvas, stemmed from her unassuming naturalness. 

On the back of the canvas she writes: “I painted this at the age of thirty, on my sixth wedding anniversary, PB.” The PB stands for Paula Becker, her maiden name.

Yet she was neither pregnant at the time, nor living with her husband, landscape artist Otto Modersohn. By the time she painted this self-portrait on May 25, 1906, Modersohn-Becker had been living on her own in Paris for three months, after abruptly leaving her husband and her home in Worpswede, an artistic colony twenty miles north of Bremen. Just a month before, she had written to Modersohn:

“Dear Otto,

How I loved you… But I cannot come to you now. I cannot do it. And I do not want to meet you in any other place. And I do not want any child from you at all; not now.”

What at first glance appears to be a celebration of domestic life is turned on its head once we know the context of the painting. By all indications, this is Paula Modersohn-Becker’s declaration of independence. The true intention of the painting was known only to her, yet how thrilling it is to achieve this emancipation via two frequent motifs in art history: the naked woman and the housewife, both bound by relationships and expectations, exposed as objects to be contemplated, and not as agents of change. To be the first woman to ever paint herself naked, well, that was just the cherry on top.

The pregnancy still eludes art historians, some even suggesting that Modersohn-Becker was merely bloated when she painted herself. Or that she was imagining herself pregnant to know how that would feel like, no different from girls who put on their mothers’ lipstick and high heel shoes and play pretend.  Others suggest illicit affairs and a pregnancy that never came to full term. But that doesn’t change the extra sting in the fact that the artist painted this self-portrait expressly on her wedding anniversary after leaving her husband and having declared no intention to return. You could think that she was being cruel and showing off her infidelity this way, but there’s yet one last explanation for this painting.

Perhaps Modersohn-Becker’s pregnancy is purely symbolic, the bearing fruit of her creativity, the birth of a new identity. As she arrived in Paris in 1906, she found herself unsure about how to even sign herself in her letters. She wasn’t Becker anymore, the naïve girl before marriage, nor Modersohn, the wife. So she just signed herself as Paula.

This was her fourth stay in Paris in six years, the city that equally amused her and annoyed her, but to which she returned to with faithfulness as to her first and only lover. Over the years Otto had accepted this love affair begrudgingly, dismayed that his wife needed so much time away from him and from their comfortable household, but understanding, nonetheless, that a free spirit like Paula needed time all to herself to flourish into the artist she was convinced — without a shadow of a doubt — that she could would become.  

Much of what we know about Paula comes from her overflowing correspondence and journal entries. But if you were to never read another line from her again, there is a makeshift poem that the artist sends to her husband in a letter from Paris in February 1905, which I think encapsulates Paula’s personality — her jovial playfulness and instinctive warmth — no doubt amplified by her stay in France where she was at her happiest:

“In Aix-la-Chapelle

I am your belle

From Herbesthal I send

Kisses without end

From Verviers

Another kiss by courier

From Liège to Namur

I think of the aunts and their clamour

In Charleroy

I think of Grandma’s joy,

Paris, I adore

I look forward as never before.

I am yours again

Your little Parisienne

With her round hat furled

She’s off to see the world

With a grey hat

Not a worry at that.”

Even though, in many ways, Otto Modersohn had made his partner quite happy, he wasn’t everything that she needed. Already within the early months of their marriage Paula had understood that she had to look for fulfillment elsewhere, a conclusion that writer Kurt Vonnegut would later arrive to, as well, musing that when couples fought, what they were really saying was “you are not enough people.”

“In this first year of my marriage I have cried a great deal and my tears often come like the great tears of childhood”, Paula writes in her journal. “My experience tells me that marriage does not make one happier. It takes away the illusion that had sustained a deep belief in the possibility of a kindred soul. In marriage one feels doubly misunderstood. For one’s whole life up to marriage has been devoted to finding another understanding being. And it is perhaps not better without this illusion, better to be eye to eye with one great and lonely truth? I am writing this in my housekeeping book on Easter Sunday, 1902, sitting in my kitchen, cooking a veal roast.”

The last line is heartbreaking, yet so endearingly childish. For, you see, Paula was not an overburdened housewife who had to give up her art to fulfill her duties. Except for Sundays, a housemaid was taking care of running the Modersohns’ house and looking after Elsbeth, Paula’s step daughter.

From the outside, it looked as if Paula had every reason to be happy. She had a loving, supporting husband, a studio of her own and a life free of financial woes, all while being an integral part of the small, artistic community of Worpswede. Yet she wasn’t content, since there’s no greater loneliness than feeling misunderstood.

Back in Paris, our little Parisienne was building herself up and leaving the past behind. She worked with fervor, plunging herself into her craft with a passion that she had never been capable of showing in any other relationship. More than 80 works were painted during that year in Paris, a picture every 4-5 days.

“I am becoming something — I am living the most intensely happy time of my life,” she confides in a May 1906 letter to her sister, around the same time that she was working on the painting showcasing her faux pregnancy.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait (Semi-Nude with Amber Necklace and Flowers II), 1906. Oil on cardboard. Böttcherstraße Museum, Bremen, Germany

Paula painted numerous self-portraits during that period, constantly creating and re-creating herself. My absolute favorite remains her 1906 Self-Portrait (Semi-Nude with Amber Necklace and Flowers II). Naked again from the waist up, she only wears her amber necklace. Her hands seem to be locked in a rhythmic dance in harmony with nature. There are flowers everywhere: in her hair, in her tulip-like hands, in the background. Even the areolae of her breasts look like pink, delicate flowers. Paula herself is a flower amidst a mythological story about metamorphosis and virginal goddesses, springing forth from a painting that seems as ancient and timeworn as a Roman fresco. 

Sometimes it seems that in the tug of war between reason and emotions nothing is ever final except for death. Whatever we hold as truth at one moment can turn into a completely different reality merely a few days later. Save for grudges and unchecked pride, it’s almost unbearable to let a loved one go, and this is the sort of dilemma that Paula experienced for herself.

 “Let me go, Otto”, Paula writes in a September 3, 1906 letter to Modersohn. “I do not want you as my husband. I do not want it. Accept this fact. Don’t torture yourself any longer. Try to let go of the past.”

Yet six days later, she was already apologizing for her uncompromising words and willing to change her mind about a situation which, for the previous seven months, had seemed set in stone. “Dear Otto,” she writes on September 9, 1906, “My harsh letter was written during a time when I was terribly upset. […] I am sorry now for having written it. If you have not completely given up on me, then come here soon, so that we can try to find one another again. The sudden shift in the way I feel will seem strange to you. Poor little creature that I am, I can’t tell which path is the right one for me. All these things have overtaken me, and yet I still do not feel guilty. I don’t want to cause pain to any of you.”

Otto, whose love, hopefulness and good nature could easily overcome the dejection of being a scorned lover, rushed to Paris to be by her side and, by March 1907, Paula was actually pregnant.

It’s hard to tell if Paula’s return was a moment of weakness or a revelation that her previous life hadn’t been that bad.  Perhaps it was a combination of both, as no truth can reveal itself without first breaking through the walls of the ego.  We often have these grand illusions about starting anew, making the great leap, anything to get us out of our current predicament, only to find ourselves even more alone and adrift. The outside circumstances may change, but we’re still the same people, taking our faults, weaknesses and inclinations with us wherever we go. As another hope dies, in those moments of alienation the pull towards familiarity cannot be stronger. And, for better or for worse, Otto Modersohn was home.

Paula admitted as much just as she was leaving Paris, in a letter to her friend Clara Westhoff: “This past summer I realized that I am not the sort of woman to stand alone in life… The main thing now is peace and quiet for my work, and I have that most of all when I am at Otto Modersohn’s side.”

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait (1906-1907). Oil on cardboard and paper. Private collection

And then something most peculiar happened. Maybe it was the comfort of being in Modersohn’s arms again, maybe it was a flame that Paris had kindled in her, but Paula’s style changed dramatically after that – from a soft, Post-Impressionist technique, always searching for that “great simplicity of form,” as she put it, to her very own signature, so original and out of place that we still do not have a better name for it other than proto-Expressionism. Jarring colors and masklike faces start popping up in Paula’s self-portraits. Visceral and expansive, these flesh masks seem to be melting and peeling off in thick layers as if revealing the artist from the inside out, like in Self-Portrait (1906-1907)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch (1907). Oil on wood. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Even when she’s smiling and holding flowers — for example, in Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch(1907) —  there’s still an undercurrent of tension, a darkness that is being explored and pried open with careful deliberation.

And she employs more close-ups than before, zooming in on the face as the key to her process of self-discovery. In Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Left Raised Hand (1907) the right hand rests with dignity on Modersohn-Becker’s stomach, but strangely enough, she leaves her abdomen out – her pregnancy, real this time around, is merely suggested.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait with Two Flowers Raised in Her Left Hand (1907).  Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Then there’s the now lost Figure composition (1907). This is only a black-and-white photo reproduction from Gillian Perry’s 1979 book Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her Life and Work, since the actual painting has been destroyed.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Figure Composition (1907)

If it looks familiar, then you’ve been paying attention. It seems to be a rework of Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait at Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906), now integrated into a group composition celebrating womanhood and fertility, as two other women, naked from the waist up, stand closely by the artist’s side. They’re shown from profile with their arms up — one holding a piece of fruit, the other one a tulip. Paula, herself, holds a bowl of fruit over her breasts in her right hand and another piece of fruit below her swollen abdomen. The core of her pear-shaped body hides its own seed: her first pregnancy.

Real life having caught up with her, on November 2, 1907 Paula Moderson-Becker gives birth to a baby girl called Mathilde. Nineteen days later, upon ending her postpartum bed rest Paula has an embolism and dies. She is only 31.   

… and I can’t help but think back to Figure Composition and the mysterious pregnancy that turned real in less than a year. We know that Paula was interested in ancient statues, mummies and African art, and these influences appear strongly in her later years as she moved towards a greater simplification of form. It’s no surprise, then, that the group arrangement, the women’s body postures, the flatness of the shapes, and the bold, dark outlines in Figure Composition call to mind an Egyptian frieze. 

In Ancient Egypt friezes were usually used to decorate tombs, in the belief that the imagery could directly affect what the deceased would be able to enjoy or have access to in their afterlife. If that holds true, then Paula must be thoroughly enjoying herself right now, dancing naked with her companions and eating juicy ripe fruit, all in praise of womanhood.

Her tragic death makes Paula Modersohn-Becker’s life read like a short nineteenth-century novel, where the 30-something heroine leaves her husband for another man, is shunned by society, mistreated and abandoned by her lover and dies as final punishment for her transgression. But 1900s Paris makes for a better lover than many people, and our heroine needed no author to write her story: she painted it herself. Her afterlife, too.

And, sometimes, she got a little bit of help from her friends. A year after her death Rainer Maria Rilke wrote Requiem for a Friend in her honor, putting into words, like only poets can do, the wholesomeness and unabashed authenticity of Modersohn-Becker’s art and life:

“And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped / out of your clothes and brought your naked body / before the mirror, you let yourself inside / down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense, / and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is.”

3 thoughts on “Paula Modersohn-Becker: When Life Imitates Art

  1. Okay, I love the article and the paintings but the English Lit major in me has to ask a question. Is the poem with the English rhyming couplets a translation from French or German?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the original poem was German mixed with French. I liked Paula’s personality so much that I wanted to learn German to read her writings in original! She’s awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

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