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Girl in white

The painter in white

Art critic Sue Hubbard brings to life the story of pioneering German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Review by Corinna Lotz

In the 21st century, it’s fairly easy to take for granted that the female of the species has it in her to become a professional painter.

Not so in 1896 when the 20-year-old Paula Becker left her parents’ home in Bremen, north Germany to learn drawing and painting at a Berlin art school.

Three years later, she settled in Worpswede, the centre of a north German artist colony, studying under the landscape and peasant painter Fritz Mackensen.

Modersohn-Becker’s story is intriguing and impressive on a number of counts. Not only did she become a professional artist in a time when the place of a middle-class woman was at the side of her husband in the home. She was amongst the first in Germany to grasp the revolutionary significance of the Paris avant-garde.

But despite decades of feminist art history and the increasingly strong role of women in today’s art world, this precursor of German Expressionism has remained in the shadows, at least in the English-speaking world.

Poet and art critic Sue Hubbard has brought her story to a wider public in Girl in White, drawing strongly on paintings, drawings and the artist’s diaries and correspondence.

In search of inspiration and the thrill of a modern metropolis as opposed to German provincialism, the aspiring artist travelled from Worpswede to Paris five times in seven years.

These journeys, her family, the people she meets, her relationship with Otto Modersohn, whom she eventually marries, and above all, the struggle to develop artistic form are vividly evoked.

Via the fictionalised first-person voice of her only child, Mathilde, as a historical counterpoint, Hubbard swings backwards and forwards in time, from the turn of the century as Modersohn-Becker reaches maturity, to the rise of Fascism and Mathilde’s love affair with a Jewish musician.

Hubbard conjures up Modersohn-Becker as a living, breathing woman, struggling against the might of established views. She had encouragement and financial support from a sympathetic father and her husband. But there were limits to even their tolerance, as she takes the rocky road to becoming an independent artist.

Paula Modersohn-Becker Peasant Girl
Paula Modersohn-Becker Peasant Girl, Feeding Geese

The highs and lows of the artist’s relationships with fellow rebel and close friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and husband Otto place her at the heart of the artistic milieu in Worpswede.

She had only six years to work as a professional artist. She died in 1907, aged 31, after giving birth to Mathilde. She missed by just two years the German avant-garde’s Sonderbund, which held landmark exhibitions challenging the reactionary bastions of imperial Germany.

Detailed descriptions of the downtrodden women and men of the northern moors, the flat landscape mirroring the artist’s moods, the ups and downs of her friendships, keep the story going in a breathless naïve way. Her dedication and love of life leave the reader unprepared for the shocking sense of bereavement at the end of the book.

18 October 2012

Girl in White is published by Cinnamon Press £8.99

Paula Modersohn-Becker and the Worpswede Artists. Drawings and Engravings 1895-1906 is at the Hermitage, St Petersburg until 11 November.

1912 Mission Moderne: Die Jahrhundertschau des Sonderbundes at the Wallraf-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne runs until 30 December.

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