Worpswede - Paris
Paula Modersohn-Becker's life and work moved between two poles: the artists' village Worpswede near Bremen and Paris. At the turn of the century, the French metropolis was a melting pot for a wide variety of artistic trends, from where the groundbreaking movements of modernism began. After months of secluded work in Worpswede Paula Modersohn-Becker was looking for the vibrant life and inspiring art experiences of Paris. Among the German artists, she was one of the first to discover the paintings of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and the Nabis group of artists. With a sure sense for the groundbreaking innovations of these painters, she developed her own work continuously. When she died of an embolism on November 20, 1907, at the age of just 31, she was one of the pioneers of modernism in Germany.
After her studies in Berlin 1896-98 back in Worpswede, Paula begins to draw landscape sketches in her sketchbooks as well as model drawings.
During her first stay in Paris in 1900 Paula Modersohn-Becker devoted herself to her Paris environment, which she painted from the private vantage point of her lodgings in the Parisian quarter of Montparnasse. The bold construction and rough reduction of the picture elements displayed in these works already indicate the geometrically planned landscapes that Paula Modersohn-Becker was to create in Worpswede after her first stay in Paris. These stand in drastic contrast to the emphatically emotional landscape paintings of the Worpswede artists and attest to the painter’s being deeply influenced by Paul Cézanne, whose art she had already encountered in Paris in 1900. Like Georges Braque and André Derain after her, she adopted Cézanne’s basic concept of emancipation from natural reproduction, translating an impression of nature into a pictorial structure with its own optical autonomy, as in the Twilight Landscape with House and Forked Branch, for example.
The more Paula Modersohn-Becker distanced herself artistically from Worpswede over the course of the years due to her stays in Paris, the less she took up the landscape as an independent subject. She did, however, remain with the genre in connection with symbolist-laden figure portrayals. These reveal her being influenced by the Nabis artists, whose painting decoratively emphasized the surface. Like their members Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier, Paula Modersohn-Becker also used reduced forms and suggestive colors in her search to get beyond what is visible and describe the things by the feelings they evoke.
»I believe that one should not think about nature too much in painting pictures. At least not during the process of conceiving the image«
Pictures of Children and Early Portrayals of Mothers and Children
Nearly two-thirds of the more than 400 figural pictures made by Paula Modersohn-Becker portray children, for the most part girls. She painted children of all ages, as well as sibling pairs and, last but not least, portrayals of mothers and children – themes that may also be found in works by Vincent van Gogh, Maurice Denis, and Paul Sérusier, or the young Pablo Picasso. Paula Modersohn-Becker, however, dedicated herself to pictures of children with the utmost intensity.
»Keep what is deepest in you pure, those things that we have in common with children, and with the birds, and with the flowers«, she advised her friend, the painter Heinrich Vogeler, already in the spring of 1900.
Children became her major theme. One reason for this was certainly that she was able to find children as models cheaply among the peasant and working-class families in Worpswede, just as she was able to do later with Italian models at the model market in Paris. But the real reason was her fascination for the world of childhood experience.
Many of her pictures show children in quiet reservation. These portrayals are always compassionate, but never sentimental. Fundamentally, she was always concerned with rendering her models in a clear manner.
Often the physiognomies have been strongly reduced in favor of a strictly-constructed picture whole. Her artistic goal was to: »Strive for the utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation« (journal entry, February 20, 1903).
»Eye to eye with one great
lonely truth«. The Self-Portrait –
Solitude and Introspection
During the period Paula Modersohn-Becker was creating art, she painted over 30 self-portraits; many of these were done in 1905 and 1906, the years she was planning and carrying out a move to Paris once and for all. More than ever before she had to rely upon herself; this aspect of having to get to know herself is expressed in the self-portraits. Also in the work of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin numerous self-portraits attest to a need for self-reflection.
»In the afternoon I do life drawing at the Académie. Every half hour a new position. I love doing that« – Nudes in Drawings
Each time she came to Paris, Paula Modersohn-Becker went to the private academies of Colarossi or Julian in order to draw and paint nudes after live models. She was in good company. Drawings by Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol, and Félix Vallotton prove that the studies of nudes were something done also by the avant-garde artists of the time. Their drawings – and many of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s drawings as well – are so-called croquis-nudes.
This term means that by swiftly changing the model’s pose, artists learned to render the model purely in outlines. In addition, Modersohn-Becker also practiced drawing large, carefully-modeled nudes with a painterly effect.
She liberated herself from this after the sculptor Bernhard Hoetger made his first visit to her studio. »These are all great works, remain true to yourself, and quit the school«, he encouraged her. From this point on she used her own models at her studio to make very freely drawn studies after children and women. Paula Modersohn-Becker had found her way to a new level of artistic freedom.
The Nude. Pictures of Children, Portrayals of Mothers and Children, and
Self-Portraits as Nudes
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s pictures of children, mothers and children, and self-portraits as nudes, which she did in Paris in 1906, are among her major works. In them, the influence of Paul Gauguin is recorded, whose art Paula Modersohn-Becker discovered for herself in Paris in the spring of 1905. His portrayals of South-Sea islanders close to nature, with their grand language of forms and the expression of natural tranquility, were in keeping with her notion of »great simplicity« and her search for the essence of mankind. In her art it is children above all who stand for a naïve, quiet presence that absorbs their surroundings. By contrast, the rendering of the nudes of mothers and children in creature-like states symbolizes an elementary human relationship and its primal primitive power. Paula Modersohn-Becker thus shared in the trend of the primitive in contemporary art that had begun with Gauguin, and captivated artists ranging from Picasso to Matisse.
»… the grand effect of noble simplicity«
Portraits and Heads
Far into the 19th century the expectation for a portrait was that it would be a fitting rendition and a recognizable likeness. In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s portraits, however, the individual recedes completely. Her portrayals of heads served her mainly as an analysis of the formal qualities of a face. »Brow, eyes, mouth, nose, cheeks, chin, that is all. It sounds so simple and yet it’s so very, very much«, is what she noted in 1903 after studying antique works of art and Egyptian mummy portraits at the Louvre.
»Brow, eyes, mouth, nose, cheeks, chin, that is all. It sounds so simple and yet it’s so very, very much«
In this portrait of Werner Sombart she reduced the human face to its basic forms. In doing this, Modersohn Becker’s development was parallel to that of Pablo Picasso during this time. The latter had seen Iberian sculptures at the Louvre at the beginning of 1906, which had inspired him to strongly reduced portraits, such as the Head of a Young Man. The Head of a Woman, which he painted two years later, demonstrates that this path led him to one of the greatest revolutions in the history of modern painting: Cubism.
In the modern movement the still-life advanced to a major theme. For a long time still-life painting had been criticized by the academics as merely copying things, with no demands on creativity. But precisely this presumed modesty of the still-life afforded free space for experimentation, and the artists of the avant-garde used it to their advantage. Paul Cézanne in particular reflected basic inner-pictorial principles of creation in the still-life. We may see the influence Cézanne exerted on Paula Modersohn-Becker, for example, in the Still-Life with Apples and Bananas: It is visible in terms of formal reduction and uniting the picture objects in their material quality as well as in the changes in perspective she consciously employed.
Like Cézanne, Gauguin was also undoubtedly among the »three or four powerful artists« whom Paula Modersohn-Becker described as having an effect upon her »like a thunderstorm, like some great event«. Cézanne’s influence becomes especially visible in her still-life paintings, while the influence of Gauguin is unmistakable in the large compositions of nudes in her final years.
Other still-life works by Paula Modersohn-Becker clearly reveal her studies of »cloissonism« – a term used to designate Emile Bernard’s and Paul Gauguin’s manner of painting, which was to summarize picture objects in glowing colors into decorative surfaces by using dark contours. In addition, the strong colors of several of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s still-life works indicate that she had studied the painting of the Fauves, the circle around Henri Matisse.
Paula Modersohn-Becker repeatedly sought new ways to make color, form, and surface independent and thus, to enhance the expression of her pictures. Ultimately, her concern was always to expose the secret poetry of things that lies behind their outward appearance. She herself summed up this artistic goal with the motto: »the thing in itself – in harmony«.
Flower pieces had long since ceased being a specifically female theme by 1900. The subject incited Henri Matisse, Odilon Redon, and Henri Rousseau, among others, to experiments with form and color – this also applied to Paula Modersohn-Becker, who devoted herself to the portrayal of flowers with particular intensity during the last year of her life. The theme was in keeping with her kindred feelings for nature and her knack for decoration. Moreover, flowers were for her the symbols of a pure soul.
Am Wall 207
28195 Bremen, Germany
Texts: from the booklet to the exhibition
"Paula in Paris, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the art in Paris around 1900 - From Cézanne to Picasso"
10.13. 2007- 24.2.2008
Anne Buschhoff, Henrike Holsing