Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

Making Babies, Painting Bodies: Women, Art, and Paula Modersohn-Becker's Productivity

Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

Making Babies, Painting Bodies: Women, Art, and Paula Modersohn-Becker's Productivity

Article excerpt

Laborious and decisive, strokes of paint analyze the weight and shape of a woman's pregnant body. Each stroke has been left to look like paint tracked by a brush, thick oil paste pushed and spread by brush bristles. Each stroke is dedicated to one color, separating the sensation of sight into its constituent elements, understanding one image as its distinct parts. Together the marks add up to a picture of physical mass. Every bead, every background leaf, petal, or wallpaper ornament is translated by paint into an echo of dense, round, shadowed belly, navel, breast, and nipples. To this day, Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings remain exceptional images of one of the most fundamental human experiences.

Pregnancy, the care and feeding of babies, small children--these might seem to be the most natural subjects in the world. Superficially, Modersohn-Becker's paintings celebrate what is natural, primitive, even animal, about the female birth cycle. Naked, kneeling in landscapes, embracing their babies, revealing gravid torsos, Modersohn-Becker's women appear to exist apart from, or prior to, culture. And yet, once examined, Modersohn-Becker 's paintings suggest the opposite. Her handling of oil paint, her treatment of color, light, and volume demand attention simultaneously to the material of her work and to the transformation of that material into representational marks. Modersohn-Becker's paintings ask us to notice a transaction between experience and the signs of that experience. To make that transaction represent the work of birth is to connect the natural creation of babies with the artistic creation of paintings. No one before Paula Modersohn-Becker had dared to make such an assertion. Even now, a hundred years later, when the condition of women in the first world has improved significantly, her assertion is still radical.

For the most natural subject in the world, birth-work has been strangely invisible. Though art dealt heroically with physical subjects like death, disease, torture, resurrection, and battle combat, it produced virtually no images of what it feels like to be pregnant, give birth, or protect and feed a tiny infant. Needless to say, the survival of the human race depends on women doing that work, and yet somehow it did not become an artistic subject.

Common sense suggests several explanations. Though the birth cycle is universal and endlessly repeated, it causes bodies to change with disconcerting speed. A pregnant woman's body looks different from one week to the next, as does a newborn baby's. How to study the sight of such unnerving change with steady care? How to translate such a temporary subject into a permanent work of art? The people, moreover, who most care about representing the subject, because they have experienced it, are the same people who are deprived of the opportunity to represent it, because of that very experience. Before the era of birth control, a woman could spend her whole adult life, day and night, year after year, being pregnant and caring for completely dependent children. Learning to paint takes years, and painting well requires long stretches of time. For hundreds of years, society insisted that women shouldn't devote time to anything but their children and households. Women probably couldn't be artists anyway, men furthermore claimed, because the very qualities that made women good mothers were the antithesis of what made men artists. Maternity vs. genius: to each gender his or her own kind of creation.

Those who did have the opportunity to represent the subject were alienated from it, if not repelled by it. From a masculine perspective, the cycle of birth has traditionally looked ugly. Paula Modersohn-Becker's husband Otto, for instance, said she was attracted to ugly subjects. The cosmetic ideals that rendered women attractive to men did not include pregnant bellies, let alone the mess and sagging flesh of afterbirth. Once the baby was on its way to independence, chubby and attuned to the outside world, artists looked again. …

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