Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Women Artist

By Gersh-Nesic, Beth Susan | Theory in Action, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Women Artist


Gersh-Nesic, Beth Susan, Theory in Action


Book Review: Diane Radycki, Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Women Artist. Yale University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780300185300 (Cloth). 256 Pages. $60.00.

Reviewed by Beth Susan Gersh-NeSié1

[Article copies available for a fee from The Transformative Studies Institute. E-mail address: journal@transformativestudies.org Website: http://www.transformativestudies.org ©2014 by The Transformative Studies Institute. All rights reserved.[

Rarely do we find research on the early modernist women artists from Germany, particularly the early 20th-century German émigrées who settled in Paris, if only for a little while. Diane Radycki tells the story of one young woman in her excellent monograph Paula ModersohnBecker: The First Modern Woman Artist. It is a bold pronouncement that challenges the very notion of modernism itself.

Radycki is a professor at Moravian College, director of the Payne Gallery at the college, and one of the preeminent Paula ModersohnBecker scholars on the planet. Fellow art historians know her papers and panels at College Art Associate conferences and published articles. Fans of Modersohn-Becker know her translation of the artist's letter and journals (Scarecrow Press, 1980). Needless to say, the PMB fan-base has been waiting patiently for this monograph on their beloved artist. The wait was worth it.

But why is there such excitement over this early modernist German woman artist? Simple: her work is beautiful. Warmed by earth tones enlivened by radiant reds, oranges, blues, greens and yellows, her rich surfaces draw us in for a closer inspection. In her late work, we see her deliberate "primitivized" in a Gauguinesque way that expresses a robust msticity, perfectly attuned to the subject matter that inspired her art. For Modersohn-Becker too searched for purity in visual terms: clear outlines and firm contours. We see this quest in Seated Girl Nude with Vases of Flowers, 1906/7 (Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal), Old Peasant Woman with Arms Crossed on Fier Chest, 1907 (The Detroit Institute of Arts) and Old Poorhouse Women in a Garden, with Garden Ornament [Upturned Jug?] and Poppies, c. 1907 (Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen Kunstsammlungen Böttcherstrasse). Her work was also inspired by Cézannian construction, as we see in Birch Trunk in a Landscape, c. 1903 (Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen Kunstsammlungen Böttcherstrasse), Still Life Pumpkin, c. 1905 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne), and Still Life with Oranges, Bananas and Lemons, 1906 (Staaliche Kunsthalle, Karlruhe).

But what indeed made Paula Modersohn-Becker "modem"? Why was she the "first modem woman artist"? Radycki convincingly makes the case as she opens our minds to understanding modernism through a feminist's eyes.

First off, we might ask ourselves: which modernism? Professor Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University, offers a massive open online course entitled "The Modem and the Postmodern," beginning with Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment. Art historian Richard Brettell began his book on modem art {Modernism: 1851-1929) with Gustave Courbet's Realist movement. Charles Baudelaire published his modemist manifesto "The Painter of Modem Life," in Le Figaro, at the end of 1863.

Surely, some women artists became "modem" during these periods? The lS^-century French academician Marie-Louise-Élizabeth VigéeLebrun (1755-1842) was certainly "modem" in her lifestyle. A single mother by choice, she left her France during the French Revolution for fear of being executed because her principal patron was MarieAntoinette. Traveling with her daughter Jeanne Julie Louise (Julie), she lived in Italy, Austria, and Russia, earning money from portrait commissions. Her no-good gambling husband Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun had bled her dry, and they eventually divorced - a rare decision, but possible for this self-employed wife. Doesn't Vigée-Lebrun's peripatetic artist's life, sans spouse or other family support system, qualify her as the first "modem woman artist"? …

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