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. Read More