Paula Modersohn-Becker, Liegende Mutter mit Kind II (Reclining Mother with Child II), 1906, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 in. × 49 1/10 in.
The novelist Marie Darrieussecq’s slim, enigmatic biography of the German Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Being Here Is Everything, opens with the author’s visit to the house in which Paula lived with her husband, Otto. “She was here,” Darrieussecq writes. “On Earth and in her house.” It is a statement of fact that conjures Modersohn-Becker, who died in 1907 at age thirty-one, into being once more. That opening sentence sits in counterpoint to the book’s epigraph, from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Being here is wondrous.” Rilke’s claim arrives with easy certitude; Darrieussecq’s with authorial entreaty.
In Being Here, Darrieussecq has drawn a complete, if elliptical, portrait of Modersohn-Becker’s short life—her close friendship with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and with Rilke, her marriage to the painter Otto Modersohn, her lifelong insistence on the ability to paint and to have a corner of solitude in which to do it. “I try to see where her strength resides,” Darrieussecq thinks while looking at a photograph of Paula. “She is staring into space. Open and thoughtful. It is the photograph of a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”
In reconstituting Modersohn-Becker’s life, Darrieussecq also illuminates a broader problem for women artists. Later in the book, she visits the Museum Folkwang, in Essen, Germany, to see Modersohn-Becker’s self-portrait and is taken to a “temporary display” in the museum’s basement. “Upstairs,” she recalls, “well lit: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Kirchner, Nolde, Kandinsky, Klee. Downstairs, in the shadows: a mess of statues from antiquity mixed up with contemporary videos. Goddesses, mother-and-child paintings, queens: the only connecting thread is that these works are by women or represent women.” The neat separation of modernist masters from the full historical sweep of women’s art—a literal high and low—encapsulates centuries of thwarted ambition.
Being Here was published in France last year and was released last month in an English translation by Penny Hueston. Darrieussecq spoke with the writer Kate Zambreno over the phone earlier this fall. Zambreno recently published Book of Mutter, a meditation on writing, grief, and motherhood. She also became a mother some nine months ago; her baby’s cries punctuated their conversation about the process of reviving Modersohn-Becker’s reputation, motherhood and art, and women’s friendships.
What was your first encounter with Paula?
It was on the Internet, actually. I received a spam email for a colloquium about psychoanalysis and motherhood. There was a stamp-size painting of a woman nursing but lying on her side. That was the best position—for me, at least—to nurse, but I never had seen that position in a painting. I discovered that it was by Paula Modersohn-Becker, and I wondered why she is so unknown.
I encountered her through Adrienne Rich’s poem about the friendship between Paula and Clara Westhoff, Rich’s answer to Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend.”
And Rilke dedicated his “Requiem” to Paula.
But she’s unnamed in it.
Paula’s friendship with Rilke was complex. My opinion is that she was the only woman who didn’t sleep with him. She flirted with him a lot, but since she was already engaged to Otto, who was to become her husband, she only flirted. And she was best friends with Clara, and Rilke was in love with both of them—the tall brunette and the small blonde.
The two girls in white, as he characterized them.
Becker (before she married) with Clara Westhoff, in the former’s atelier, in 1899.
It’s the clichéd fantasy of a young man at the beginning of the twentieth century. Paula and Clara are young, they seem like virgins, they are smart, they are beautiful, they dance very well, they are educated, but not too much, so they’re absolutely perfect. He had just been dumped by Lou Andreas-Salomé, who was much older and who knew much more about life, and so he was quite unhappy. Then he discovers these two young girls. Paula is already engaged, and Clara, I think, sleeps with him quite soon, because she’s very pregnant when they get married. Their marriage is a disaster of course. When Clara had her baby, Rilke just left the house, he couldn’t stand it, he couldn’t stand the baby’s crying, the baby prevented him from writing, blah blah blah …
I was working on a story on Rilke when I was pregnant—Rilke in his farmhouse unable to write, Rilke in Paris, working on Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—but I was haunted by Paula. There was something about Paula’s story, and Clara’s, that feels unfinished.
Absolutely. The pictures we have of Paula, too, are haunting. She’s melancholy, this woman in the photos, and she died so early.
She died holding her baby daughter, and her last word was Schade—“a pity.” It’s incredibly tragic.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write her biography—to give her a bit more life, some justice. She died leaving an eighteen-day-old baby. A shame, yes. A pity.
There’s a line in Adrienne Rich’s poem that every pregnant woman dreams her own death. What’s fascinating about Paula is that she painted mothers and pregnancy and babies so lovingly and in such a different way, but she was extremely ambivalent about her own pregnancy, about her own domesticity and impending marriage, especially as it relates to her freedom and art making.
She’s a complex woman, and her ambivalence about having a baby is very modern. Whether she wanted a baby or not, she did want to paint. She wanted to paint more than she wanted a baby, I think, but the fact that she painted babies … She doesn’t paint the Virgin and the baby, she paints the mother and the baby. And it’s not erotic, it’s not a man’s vision. It’s a woman’s vision of women who are not Madonnas and not prostitutes. It’s not Manet’s Olympia, and it’s not the Madonna of the Renaissance. At the Louvre, there is work by only four women but thousands and thousands of paintings of women.
Paula was also the first to paint herself naked. I’m sure she did it because models were too expensive, and she didn’t want to ask her husband for more money. They’re not sensual paintings, it’s a dialogue with herself. And when she paints herself pregnant and she’s not pregnant, it’s so ambivalent.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis am 6. Hochzeitstag (Self-Portrait on the sixth wedding anniversary), tempera on canvas, 40.1 in × 27.6 in.
That’s her most famous self-portrait, with the amber necklace, where she appears to be pregnant but in reality was not yet pregnant. There are many interpretations of what this might mean. What do you think of that painting?
She had been married for six years and had just left her husband—May 1906. She’s alone in Paris and she paints herself pregnant, and the signature says, “I painted this at the age of thirty, on my sixth wedding anniversary.” I think she’s fantasizing about having a baby—like, How would I look pregnant? We all did this—you know, putting cushions under sweaters. She painted herself with a big belly, thinking, How would that be? Good or not? With him or not?
I don’t really know. It’s a fiction, but it’s beautiful. Every time she paints herself naked, she’s smiling, and I like that, because the rest of her paintings are very often … not sad but serious, melancholy. In that painting, she looks not naughty but … it’s full of irony.
Yes, it’s a very direct gaze. But a different gaze, than, say, in Manet’s Olympia. She looks amused with herself.
I can’t think of another naked self-portrait by a woman at that point. She did something that no one did before her.
In my mind, I always place that self-portrait next to the photograph Diane Arbus took of herself in the mirror when she’s quite young and in the early stages of pregnancy. There’s something similar in both of their expressions.
I also compare her to Francesca Woodman, who made naked self-portraits that never sentimentalize. Suzanne Valadon, another great painter, painted herself naked ten years later, in 1916, in Paris.
The other artist I think of who painted pregnant women was Klimt.
Yes, and Egon Schiele.
I love walking around the early Netherlandish rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I like looking at the paintings of lactating virgins. The poses are so awkward—the erect, high breast, the stiff and rigid seating position.
Yes! And the position in Paula Becker’s painting Reclining Mother and Child is very interesting again. The sensuality between mother and baby—they’re languid, and they look very much asleep. When she could afford it, she hired Italian models in Paris because Italians were recent migrants, they were very poor, and they accepted being painted naked. Sometimes she felt ashamed painting women naked, but she needed to do it. She had learned to paint nudes by looking at corpses because female students weren’t allowed to paint from live models in Germany. Only men were allowed to. Paris was the only city where female students were allowed to paint naked models and learn anatomy.
You and I emailed a little bit about early motherhood and boredom and its relationship to art making and the intellect. When I think about nursing and that period of early motherhood, it’s this trancelike laziness. I read a lot when I was nursing. For me, it was a fluid, ongoing period. I always tried to have books scattered around, so I could read wherever I sat down. I picked up things here and there, like Kafka’s diaries. I really identified with Clara and Paula during this time. [Baby crying in background.]
Clara was interrupted—that’s the word in my mind when I read her letters. She loved her baby, but she also wanted to do something else. She wanted to ride her bicycle, as she writes Paula, and she couldn’t because her child’s father was completely absent.
That passage about the bicycle, in her letters to Paula, I find so devastating. It’s a desire for the most basic freedom—being able to go where she wants. Paula wasn’t very receptive to Clara’s feelings of oppression, home alone with the baby. She felt that Clara had broken with her and gone in with Rilke, had shut her out of their threesome. How could Clara complain that she was trapped inside, that she just wanted to go ride her bicycle? Their friendship was so beautiful and intense and sad, these two women artists alienated from each other.
Paula thought Clara forsook all her power and her creativity for marriage and motherhood. She didn’t understand her friend’s suffering. And Clara’s money problems—she had no idea of that. They were too proud to speak about it. Clara gave the baby to her parents for a year, after which the baby didn’t recognize her.
Clara is often erased in this narrative, which is usually focused on Rilke, even in Rilke’s own elegy to Paula.
Because the information about her is very scarce. I learned that she traveled to Paris and to Egypt and when she returned, she took her baby back. I also learned that she and her daughter lived together in a very small village, and she died in 1953 and, well, that was it. She didn’t make any more art.
She’s a ghost in your text, she flutters in the margins.
It’s a rather typical feminine destiny. Paula is less typical in a way, but Clara is completely erased.
Clara had studied with Rodin, even before Rilke was his secretary, and she wrote a monograph on him. She had very serious aspirations as a sculptor.
She was very promising—she seemed more powerful than Paula. She did not resist marriage. Marriage killed her.
How did this book come about? Didn’t it begin as a catalogue essay for a museum exhibition in Paris of Paula’s work? [Baby crying in background.]
I didn’t want to write a biography, I wanted to write a novel, something completely different. But you know, when an idea persists in your mind, and you wake up with the idea, and you go to bed with the idea … She wouldn’t leave me in peace, so I had to write something about her. And I went to Bremen to find information.
In the middle of writing the book, I felt I needed to show her paintings in an exhibition. I went to the big museums in Paris, with postcards in hand, but they didn’t want to do it, she wasn’t well-enough known. Until the Museum of Modern Art—and it was the perfect place. The show ran for more than six months, and it reached twice the audience they expected. It was a big success, and my essay was part of the catalogue.
What was your relationship with Paula throughout the process?
She was like a dead friend. It was not exactly a passion. I like fiction, I write novels. A biography is a bit more restrained—you have to tell what you know, so I didn’t have to imagine. In the beginning, I thought I was going to do a novel, but I wanted to have this woman known, not my imagination of her. She was not a ghost, she was like a dead woman, and I wanted to honor her memory. When you love somebody, you want the other people you know to love her, too.
You call her Paula in your book, but you refer to Rilke as Rilke.
Because women have no name. She didn’t like to call herself Modersohn because that was Otto’s name, and when she left him, it was not her name anymore. Becker was her father’s name, and it was a very common name. When she left Otto, she signed her letters “Paula,” with a question mark. And that’s the point—her name is Paula. No one calls him Rainer Maria. It’s the truth about men and women. It still is. It’s hard to have a name when you’re a woman.
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