What if there were a woman born in the late 1800s with the ambition to paint a way no woman had ever painted before, to paint women in a way women had never been painted before, to bring the female sensibility and perspective to art in a way it had not been seen before?
What if that woman had a lot of ambition and fought her position, status and the misogyny and sexism of the day and actually succeeded in doing everything she had set out to do? If there were such a woman and she did accomplish all that, wouldn’t we have all heard of her and know her as much as we know Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin? The answer is no. Because that woman did exist, did have all those ambitions and did succeed in accomplishing them, but most of us have never heard about her.
If we have heard about her, it is in the context of her being a friend of the famous poet Rainer Maria Rilke, or through the poetry of Adrienne Rich, but not for her accomplishments in art.
We also may not know that she was the first woman to paint herself nude and the first European woman to have a museum dedicated solely to her art.
Her name is Paula Modersohn-Becker. She was a German woman, artist, a feminist and a #NastyWoman in her visual work but also a #NastyWomanWriter in the letters and journals she left behind.
“With her bold experiments in subject matter, color, modeling, and brushwork, Modersohn-Becker was among the painters, along with Picasso and Matisse, who created modernism in the first years of the twentieth century.”1
I first heard about Paula Modersohn-Becker in the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I published that poem in a previous #NastyWomanWriters post about Rich.
Rich’s poem captivated and moved me. I read it over and over and felt how much it expressed the situation of so many female artists through time. Their lost voices.
I was intrigued by the artist colony in Worpswede, Germany where she met Rainer Maria Rilke and Clara Westhoff, her best friend. How she and Clara worked together side by side both possessing ambition, dreams and drive: Westhoff ending up slaving in Rodin’s studio in Paris, Modersohn-Becker ending up dead three weeks after giving birth at age 31, Rilke going on to write one of his most famous poems about Becker, her art, her drive, their friendship and her death.
But I knew little about the story of her painting and her impact on Modern Art. I knew that Worpswede was outside of Bremen, and yet did not know until I was in Bremen a month ago that there was a whole museum dedicated to Modersohn-Becker. “The first European Museum dedicated solely to the art of a woman.” In fact the museum brochure goes so far as to state: “The Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum was the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the work of a female painter.”
There, I was able to stand before her paintings and feel their power for myself. Then it was that her world opened up to me and I began to learn more about this singular woman and all that she was able to accomplish and change for women for all time.
“Modersohn-Becker had a ten-year painting career, during which she executed more than seven hundred paintings, pushed limits, experimented with technique, and revolutionized female body imagery. She also produced hundreds of drawings and a dozen etchings.”2
There is the story about her friendship with Rilke, and Clara and her husband Otto….so dramatic and intriguing there is a recent movie (2016) about her which I was able to watch on the plane on the way home from my trip. Remarkable timing for me! Titled, Paula, it confuses the timeline and many of the facts of her life, but is worth seeing just to have a feeling for this woman and all she accomplished.
The struggles and details of her personal life are interesting for sure but not what I want to focus on here. Too often women’s personal lives are focused on at the expense of their professional ambitions and accomplishments. What I want to write about in this post is Modersohn-Becker’s work, which mattered more to her than anything else, how she fought to accomplish certain things inside this male-dominated world of art and how her ambition allowed her to do this.
I want to write about the woman who wrote this:
“I love color. It must submit to me. And I love art. I kneel before it, and it must become mine. Everything around me glows with passion. Every day reveals a new red flower, glowing, scarlet red. Everyone around me carries them. Some wear them quietly hidden in their hearts. And they are like poppies just opening, of which one can see only here and there a hint of red petal peeking out from the green bud.”3
I want to write about this woman as described by Art Historian Diane Radycki In her book, Paula Modersohn-Becker : The First Modern Woman Artist:
“At the Threshold of modernism, Paula Modersohn-Becker risked everything in order to become “something.” Who she became was a daring innovator of gender imagery—the first modern woman artist to challenge centuries of traditional representations of the female body in art. Before Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) no woman artist painted herself nude, or mothers nude or girls nude.”4
Paula Modersohn-Becker was born Paula Becker in Dresden, Germany in 1876 to educated parents, parents that wanted her to work and be able to support herself. At age twelve she moved with her family to Bremen. She was eventually sent to England to live with her aunt and go to finishing school. Her aunt found her so unruly that she sent her to The School of Art in London (1892), to get her out of her hair. There the ambition was formed and Paula began her lifelong passion for the visual arts.
“I have a feeling for how things push into and on top of one other, I have only to develop and refine it carefully.”5
School was rigorous and Paula worked hard, continuing to work hard, often morning into night, her entire life. From then on trying to find a way, no matter what, to continue her art education, and pursue a painting career over the dull life of governess her father had in store for her.
“I don’t enjoy life if I am not working.”6
She studied in Berlin, at The School of the Association of Women Artists, (1896-1898), she studied in Paris, at the Académie Colarossi, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and when she was back in Bremen, she studied at Worpswede. Anything to keep on studying and doing her art. Paula even married the painter Otto Modersohn so that she could keep on painting as the deadline her father had set for her had passed.
“Lack of money rivets us to the ground,” she wrote. “One’s wings are clipped.”7
Her letters and journals document her struggles with her work, her aspirations, “I feel an inner relationship from the antique, mainly the early antique, to the Gothic, and from the Gothic to my sense of form.”8 And her understanding that she was actually accomplishing what she wanted to. Modersohn-Becker to her sister Milly, May 1906:
“I am becoming something—I am living the most intensely happy period of my life. Pray for me.”9
This was not just some woman who stumbled upon her fame or was discovered after she died because of her tragic death. This was a woman intentionally setting out to do all the things she did and writing about her disappointments and challenges as well as her intense passion to keep pursuing. She took in the current artists of the day, sat in the Louvre and studied the “masters.”
“I am even, I believe, developing a connection with the sun. Not with the sun that divides up everything and puts in shadows everywhere and plucks apart the image into a thousand pieces, rather with the sun that broods and makes things gray and heavy and combines them all in this gray heaviness, so that they become one.”10
She worked non-stop and was committed to painting things as she saw them, not as she was told to paint.
“How happy I would be if I could give figurative expression to the unconscious feeling that often murmurs so softly and sweetly within me.”11
She fought for her vision, to capture “the gentle vibration in things,” and took risks that are hard for us to see or imagine today. Being the first woman to paint herself nude was a huge break with tradition and daring subject to attempt. It is not that she did now know this. She knew when she stood in front of her mirror and painted herself that she was doing just that. And that needs to be appreciated and celebrated.
“Modersohn-Becker entered the history of art as a painter of the figure, with little reference to her nudes. The difference hits hard on what constitutes the full meaning of her work, originality, and contribution to modernism. The nude is no accidental subject matter, or subcategory. Modersohn-Becker’s ambition is clear in her choices of subject, scale, and materials, down to the extent of her preparation. Her accomplishment is equally clear. What then accounts for the absence of the Nude in the critical discourse on Modersohn-Becker?
Today, post-Guerilla Girls and post modernism, Modersohn-Becker’s risk can escape us, used as we are to frank sexual images. Her female bodies defy the idealized and eroticized nude, and at the same time destabilize Self-Portrait, Children, and Mother and Child as minor genres in the hierarchy of painting categories. Modersohn-Becker shifted paradigms that, over the course of the twentieth century, continued to change with the person and the practice of the woman artist. From Frida Kahlo to Cindy Sherman and beyond, the legacy of Modersohn-Becker stretches through all those whose representation of women have challenged art.”12
All gets lost in a history of art where men were always painting the female nude and always painting self-portraits. But men were not painting themselves nude and Paula Becker was not a man painting a woman with all the projection of the male gaze that has occurred over time. No, Paula Becker painted the female body, her own and other women from the point of view of a woman. And this was groundbreaking and new.
“There is no male precedent for what she was doing, nor could there be. She painted the female body from within its immanent life, a radical spectacle of skin and pubic hair. In her work the erotic body no more wars with a maternal body than culture disconnects from nature. Any comparison for her paintings comes not from art’s history of the female nude, but from the future twentieth-century body imagery.
Baby, baby, not only could she do it, she did it first.”13
We must really think clearly to understand this. It had never been done before. Can you imagine? In 1900 this had not been done? And she knew it and she did it over and over and over again.
She was also the first woman to paint herself pregnant. Do you hear this long lists of firsts?
As I stood in the museum looking upon Modersohn-Becker’s work, I felt strongly that in writing about her work I wanted to acknowledge her ambition and in that decision, came the understanding that I wanted to acknowledge my own ambition and also begin to understand more about the subject of women and ambition.
Leaving gender aside, what is ambition? A drive to express something one feels inside—to get it out—to create, to actualize a vision, a dream. Ambition is a push from within that utilizes our will forces. We have to work hard to actualize an ambition and yet the ambition itself often makes us willing to do that work. Often ambition can make us feel that we cannot not do the work. In that way it is a gift. It motivates us, makes us strive for the seeming impossible. Why is it then, that is has and continues to be difficult for a woman to own her own ambition?
Can we begin by stating clearly and confidently that there is nothing at all wrong with ambition?
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine about her book on Modersohn-Becker, Radycki states: “If I had another subtitle for this book, it would be about ambition. Because, for the most part, these artists, Morisot, Cassat, Frida Kahlo, maybe—are incredibly ambitious, and nobody writes about that. When I say ambitious, she was measuring herself and she wanted to beat everybody out. She knew she had it in her. When she hit her stride with the nude, she declares, ‘I’m doing it. I’m doing what nobody else had done, I’m seeing it, I’ve got it.’”14
It took me a long time to embrace my own ambitious nature. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t understand myself to be ambitious. And if I had, I might have thought that was a bad thing to be. But it is time to stop this way of thinking.
As psychiatrist Anna Fels discovered in her research into women and ambition, “I soon came to realize that although the articulate, educated group of women I interviewed could cogently and calmly talk about topics ranging from money to sex, when the subject of ambition arose, the level of intensity took a quantum leap. …For them, ‘ambition’ necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends.”15
Fels goes on to note that research reveals that part of the pursuit of ambition requires that accomplishments be acknowledged. In other words, one who is ambitious also wishes to be seen for what they have done: recognized, affirmed. In fact, studies show that, “It may be impossible to measure the ‘desire to improve a skill’ independent of the individual’s ‘desire for recognition.’ Without earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance are rarely achieved. Ambitions are both the product of and, later on, the source of affirmation.”16
This is an interesting conundrum. Ambition requires recognition, recognition encourages more ambition.
This for me is a missing piece of the puzzle for the advancement of women in any of the modalities in which they long for advancement. There have been plenty of ambitious women through time, of course, but women’s accomplishments have not been sufficiently recognized, affirmed and acknowledged. Women’s efforts and their achievements continue to go unrecognized. Women’s work is mostly trivialized, ignored, silenced and even worse, it is often stolen. Take Paula Modersohn-Becker as a shining example.
This sets up a continuous cycle of being disappeared, discouraged and ignored and perpetuates the pattern we now see of so many women starting out ambitious then losing the will to continue.
Women have spent most of their time in the patriarchy acknowledging men’s accomplishments which has ironically helped men achieve even more, because the acknowledgment helps one go on to continue in their pursuit and achieve more.
The data shows that “It is difficult for women to confront and address the unspoken mandate that they subordinate needs for recognition to those of others—particularly men. The expectation is so deeply rooted in the culture’s ideals of femininity that it is largely unconscious.”17
Women have to begin acknowledging each other’s achievements and accomplishments. We have to do this in order for women to achieve and accomplish. That is the way it works. We have to do this for each other. Here I do it for Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Who do you want to turn and offer your acknowledgement and encouragement to? Which woman in your life is ambitious and doing great work, any kind of work, any kind of dream, any kind of project? How about offering that recognition to her today. You are doing a great job! I see how hard you are working on things that are important for you to accomplish. I recognize your drive and your will and I encourage you to continue.
Ambition. I want to recognize Paula Modersohn-Becker’s ambition. In recognizing that we can finally value her accomplishments. Because it was not by accident that she did any of these things. It is because of her ambition to do so.
Paula Modersohn-Becker is a #NastyWomanArtistandWriter
©Theresa C. Dintino 2017
1 John Colapinto, “Paula Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece,” The New Yorker, October 29, 2013. p.1
2 Diane Radycki, Paula Modersohn-Becker, The First Modern Woman Artist,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)p. 94
3 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047
4 Radycki, p.1
5 Ibid., p.189
6 Ibid., P.210
7 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047
8 Radycki, p.199
9 Ibid., p.135
10 Ibid., P.96
11 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047
12 Radycki, p. 158-159.
13 Radycki p.180
14 John Colapinto, “Paula Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece,” The New Yorker, October 29, 2013. p.4
15 Anna Fels, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Harvard Business Review, April, 2004. p.2
16 Ibid., p.4
17 Ibid., p.7