The Artist as Fruit

Mary Ann Caws

  • Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki
    Yale, 246 pp, £40.00, ISBN 0 300 18530 8

The story of Paula Modersohn-Becker is, according to Diane Radycki, ‘the missing piece in the history of 20th-century modernism’. This is a large claim, and the basis for it is Modersohn-Becker’s series of nude self-portraits, the first such works by a woman. Paula Becker grew up in Dresden until she was 12, when her family moved to the smaller, wealthy city of Bremen, where her father worked as a building and works inspector on the newly nationalised railway. Despite her father’s continual criticism of her ambitions (‘I don’t believe you will be a divinely inspired artist of the first rank’), when she was 16, in 1892, she was allowed to go to London, probably to St John’s Wood School of Art, for two months, and then to Berlin for two years, where she studied at the Association of Women Artists, concentrating on figure portraits and the nude. Back in Bremen during the vacations, she began visiting the artists’ colony at Worpswede, where she moved in September 1898 to study with Fritz Mackensen, who had cofounded the colony with Otto Modersohn.

‘Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude II’ (1906).
‘Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude II’ (1906).

Worpswede, 16 miles from Bremen, was a hamlet of thatched cottages surrounded by peat bogs. In 1884, Mimi Stolte, whose family owned a shop in the village, met Mackensen while staying with her aunt in Düsseldorf and invited him to spend the holidays in Worpswede. Mackensen and Modersohn decided to settle there in an attempt to set up a community far removed from the rigid academicism of the art school in Düsseldorf which they had both attended. The Worpswede artists shared a love of outdoor painting and liked making life-size works. They painted peasant dwellings with thatched roofs, and boats with black tarred sails slowly carrying peat down the canals. Becker wrote breathlessly in her journal in the late summer of 1897: ‘Worpswede, Worpswede, you are always in my thoughts! … Birches, birches, pine trees and old willows. Beautiful brown moors – exquisite brown! The canals with their black reflections, black as asphalt. The Hamme, with its dark sails – a wonderland, a land of the gods … The atmosphere pervades me to my smallest fingertip.’ The artists exhibited together, published pamphlets and assembled frequently in the Barkenhoff, the house among the birches belonging to Heinrich Vogeler (another former Düsseldorf student) and his wife and former model, Martha Schröder.

Another young female artist who visited the village was my grandmother Margaret Walthour Lippitt. She had attended the Académie Julian in Paris in 1898, a few years before Becker went there. (One day, Sargent came up behind her when she was sketching in the Louvre and remarked on her auburn hair: ‘So like a Titian.’ She was not displeased.) In 1904, she went with her husband to live in Bremen (he was in charge of the cotton exchange there) and over the next ten years made frequent trips to Worpswede. She was especially close to Modersohn and to Rilke, neither of whose names made much impression on me as a child. We had a copy of Modersohn-Becker’s Goose Girl on the stairs, and the deep greens and browns of the northern moors perfectly matched the depressing folk tales my mother had been told when she was growing up in Bremen, and passed on to her own children.

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