As a pioneer of modern art in Germany, Paula Modersohn-Becker played a central role in the history of 20th-century art. This exhibit gives deeper insights into the work and life of this important artist.
As a pioneer of modern art in Germany, Paula Modersohn-Becker played a central role in the history of 20th-century art. Educated primarily in Berlin and Worpswede, she was exposed to the modern art of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau and the artist group of the Nabis through her four stays in Paris. On the basis of these stimuli, she developed her own entirely individual visual idiom and a unique image of humanity: renouncing genre-like representations, she gives expression to the essential and primal nature of the people she depicts. Without pathos and stylisation, the works’ conception is simple and simultaneously grand. It was only after her early death, following the birth of her daughter Mathilde in 1907, that her extensive oeuvre was examined, exhibited and purchased by collectors. The building built and dedicated to her in 1927 by the Bremen coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius was the world’s first museum for a female painter.
Mother-and-child images are of great significance in the artist’s oeuvre. With the “Reclining Mother and Child” she found a simultaneously simple and convincing compositional and formal solution: nearly filling the picture, the two bodies form a unit that gives expression to the primal and timeless fundamental bond a mother feels towards her child.
The image’s monumentally archaic quality has no parallel in the German art of its time. Instead, it is the result of French influences as well as Modersohn-Becker’s occupation with antique art. Two other compositionally similar versions owned by Ludwig Roselius burned during bombing raids on the Böttcherstraße.
The first female nude self-portrait in the history of art
As the first female nude self-portrait in the history of art, this likeness created in Paris is extraordinary and, at the same time, a source of riddles. First, it was only her 5th anniversary – Otto Modersohn and Paula Becker were married on 25 May 1901. In addition, when this painting was created, the artist was not pregnant – as suggested by her rounded belly and the hands laid protectively around it. The inscription at the bottom right as well as the calm, self-assured gaze directed at the viewer reveal the image’s true character as an artistic as well as personal manifesto: the painter is confident in her artistic calling, abilities and creative power. Coupled with the image’s size, immediacy and simultaneous simplicity, this conviction makes the painting one of the 20th century’s most striking images of the figure.
In numerous paintings Paula Modersohn-Becker occupied herself with the landscape of Worpswede, particularly with the birch trees found in great numbers there. The simple, almost abstract structure of these trees inspired her to create often extraordinary and modern compositions. She has interwoven the painting’s foreground and background in a particularly charming and captivating manner in Birch Trunk in front of a Landscape: the top and bottom of the trunk are cut off by the edge of the picture while the view to the left, across the meadow and groups of trees, leads into the distance. This results in a strong contrast of nearness and distance, while the shadow primarily emphasises the painting’s two-dimensionality. Paula Modersohn-Becker was very obviously concerned not with reproducing a real landscape but, instead, with creating a picture.
Simple life in rural Worpswede
Paula Modersohn-Becker was fascinated by the simple life in rural Worpswede and also by the (mostly older) women in the almshouse there.
This painting is among the artist’s last works and reveals her stylistic proximity to van Gogh or Gauguin. The monumental figure of “Mother Schröder”, the woman from the almshouse, towers up in front of the brilliant colours of the poppy flowers and a bulbous glass ball – a typical ornament in Worpswede farmers’ gardens. The bright evening light in the background defines the atmosphere and makes her face appear to be in shadow.
The woman’s powerful and stocky figure, coarse face and absent-minded gaze invest the image with a certain heaviness. The artist captures her sitter’s nature and her striking physiognomy with just a few brushstrokes.
The majority of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s paintings depict people. This likeness of Lee Hoetger, friend of the painter and wife of the artist Bernhard Hoetger, is among Modersohn-Becker’s most modern portraits. Set before a dark background in a narrowly cropped image, the figure directly confronts the viewer. Angular and almost mask-like, the face stands out with its narrow, almond-shaped eyes. The artist has built the figure up out of just a few surfaces and grasped it in geometrical terms.
Modersohn-Becker has used the bold, black contour lines and few – though sharply contrasting – colours to invest this likeness with astounding expressive power. The simplified and geometric treatment of the visual elements recalls images of the figure by Picasso or Cézanne.
For Paula Modersohn-Becker children were a central theme that runs through every period of her oeuvre. In this painting the artist has concentrated on a close-up, monumental figure of a peasant girl. Shown in profile playing a flute, the child strides through the forest. The model’s face, hands and hair have been reduced to the essential. The figure, which nearly fills the picture plane, is harmoniously assimilated into the vertically structured space of the landscape. Slender birch trunks in the background form a compositional framework, a dense network of trees in autumn colours. The integration of figures in landscapes is a recurring subject in the artist’s oeuvre, and she used it to give expression to the bond between humanity and nature.
Paula Modersohn-Becker created around 70 still lifes. This example’s composition and its repertoire of motifs recall numerous still lifes with fruit by Paul Cézanne.
The image is focused on a grey stoneware bowl with apples that stands on a rust-red, patterned tablecloth and has a knife and a turquoise-green glass placed next to it. The diagonal course of the tabletop generates a sense of spatial depth which is intensified by means of the knife lying at an angle. The still life captivates us not just through the artist’s efforts to simplify forms but also through its experimentation with a perspectival oscillation in directing our gaze: the slightly downward view on to the bowl competes with the side view of the glass.
Following her early death in 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker’s extensive, but previously unknown, body of work was surveyed and organised by her husband Otto Modersohn and friends like Bernhard Hoetger or Heinrich Vogeler. Overwhelmed by its quality and modernity, they soon succeeded in inspiring enthusiasm for the painter’s art among important collectors and museums as well. Finally, the Bremen coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius also purchased key major works by Paula Modersohn-Becker and, in 1927, he devoted the world’s first museum for a female painter to her: the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in the Böttcherstraße.
The museum was designed by Bernhard Hoetger, a sculptor and close friend of the painter who had died so young. With it he created a unique, Expressionist work of architecture whose exterior also identifies the museum as an extraordinary and original place for art.
Ever since that time, the permanent exhibition has presented eminent artworks and drawings by the painter, who is now compared with renowned artists like Picasso as a pioneer of modern art. The Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum’s own collection is supplemented by works from the Paula-Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung, with which the museum regularly cooperates to realise special exhibitions on the artist’s life and specific aspects of her oeuvre. In addition to these two elite Bremen collections, the Kunsthalle Bremen also presents a selection of paintings by Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum
Ludwig Roselius Museum
28195 Bremen, Germany
Texts: Dr. Frank Schmidt, Anna Schrader
V.S.d.P.: Claudia Klocke