With a comprehensive retrospective, the Schirn illuminates how Paula Modersohn-Becker anticipated central tendencies of Modernism.
No other woman artist of the classical modern period in Germany has achieved such legendary status in the public eye as Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907). In her short lifetime, she created a comprehensive and multifaceted oeuvre that became a projection surface for over 100 years and continues to fascinate to this day.
From 8 October 2021, the Schirn is providing an overview of the complete works of Paula Modersohn-Becker, demonstrating in a comprehensive retrospective how resolutely she defied the social and artistic conventions of her time and anticipated key trends of modernism. The exhibition in Frankfurt brings together 116 of her paintings and drawings from all creative phases, including major works that are now considered icons of art history. The exhibition presents a current view of the oeuvre of this early representative of the avant-garde. In the presentation, which is structured according to striking series and individual motifs, the focus is also on Modersohn-Becker’s extraordinary painting style and artistic methods, which have contributed to the diverse reception of her work.
From 1898 onwards, Paula Modersohn-Becker lived in the artists’ colony in Worpswede, interrupted by four longer stays in Paris. Her extensive oeuvre of some 734 paintings and roughly 1,500 works on paper clearly reflects the influence of these two contrasting places. Despite the lack of female role models and while married to the Worpswede-based landscape painter Otto Modersohn, she pursued her independent artistic development with great discipline. Her works were created in often solitary confrontation with older art history and current artistic trends, which she studied in the French metropolis.
In large series of works, she circled around a recurring repertoire of pictorial motifs, with a special focus on portraits and self-portraits; further central work complexes include portraits of children, depictions of mothers and their children, peasants, nudes, and landscapes from Worpswede and Paris, as well as still lifes. In the process, she found her way to timeless, universally resonant images and independent representations. Her works are rigorous and at times radically different from those of her contemporaries. The artist’s own high standards are contrasted by her complete lack of external success during her own lifetime. Only after her death was her work celebrated as a discovery, collected, and exhibited, and often appropriated due to its ambivalence.
Only after her death was her work celebrated as a discovery, collected, and exhibited.
A particular focus of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s artistic work is the depiction of the human being, the portrait. In particular, her self-portraits are one of her most important fields of artistic experimentation and form the starting point of the exhibition at the Schirn. On view is a selection of this group of works, which is highly diverse—both painterly and stylistically—thus reflecting her entire development as an artist and serving as an ongoing act of artistic self-assurance. Already manifest in the early Self-Portrait from c. 1898 is a central artistic device: the close-up view. The pictorial field is completely filled by bringing the artist’s face up close. During her second stay in Paris in 1903, Modersohn-Becker found in the frontality of Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits in the Louvre a form of generalization which, in the combination of direct proximity and timeless elements, corresponded to her artistic aspirations and which she took up in, among others, “Self-Portrait with Red Floral Wreath and Necklace”.
More than half of her self-portraits were painted in 1906/07, when she was in Paris, separated from Otto Modersohn and seeking her own path as an artist. Seven show the painter half or completely undressed. In this context, “Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day” (1906), the first known nude self-portrait by a female artist and not exhibitable at the time of its creation, takes on a special role. This complex work provides numerous allusions to art historical precursors, which it reinterprets into an extremely daring self-portrait around the turn of the twentieth century. Nude and with implied pregnancy, Modersohn-Becker presents herself confidently and femininely—doubly potent as both an artist and as a woman.
Many of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s figure paintings are characterized by an unmistakable mixture of closeness and distance, of naturalism and symbolism, with which they are elevated to the level of the timeless and universal. This mode of representation also characterizes her unique portraits of children, as well as her mother-and-child motifs. With altogether more than 400 works depicting mostly peasant children, this is the largest group within Modersohn-Becker’s oeuvre.
Children appear as autonomous individuals
The selection of children’s portraits in the Schirn pays testimony to the great intensity with which the artist devoted herself to this subject, which was popular in the late nineteenth century, especially among the bourgeois public. Nevertheless, Paula Modersohn-Becker completely refrained from the trivializing depiction that was common at the time. Her children appear as autonomous individuals, alien and removed, present and intimate in close-up details. In the last years of her life and work, they become timeless symbols and, cast with attributes such as fruits and flowers, appear in fantastic pictorial spaces as representatives of a comprehensive mysticism of nature. This stylization reached a peak in “Nude Girl with Flower Vases”, which was influenced by Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti motifs.
With her depictions of mothers and their children, Modersohn-Becker dealt with a motif that had hardly been systematically worked on before her and developed numerous variants. Realistic elaborations were later followed by simplification and monumentalization. Against the background of the “Lebensreform” (Life Reform) movement and nudism, which the artist also practiced, the naked body, as in the self-portraits, became the bearer of a pantheistic and matriarchal world of ideas, which is combined with an iconic statuesqueness. A special feature of Modersohn-Becker’s work are the portraits of villagers in Worpswede, among whom the artist often chose elderly peasants as models, in addition to children and mothers. In doing so, she lent her sitters a high degree of dignity without either concealing or glorifying their age, coarseness, and poverty. Between 1903 and 1907, she created a series of mostly large-format pictures depicting women from the poorhouse, which are among her major monumental works.
Often she sought out elderly peasants as models
Time and again, she resorted to the same subjects, in particular “Mother Schröder,” as in “Old Pauper” and “Woman from the Poorhouse”. Heavy, static, timeless, and with huge hands, she appears like a goddess from a distant pre-Christian culture. As a special loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Schirn is also showing the major work “Old Peasant Woman”, which is remarkable for its unusual color composition and was shown five years after her death in 1912 in the first major avant-garde exhibition in Germany alongside works by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
With her still lifes, most of which were painted between 1905 and 1907, Modersohn-Becker turned to a favorite avant-garde experimental field of Gustave Courbet, Odilon Redon, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, which was taken up in Worpswede only sporadically by Heinrich Vogeler. Like Cézanne, the artist chose a repetitive repertoire of objects. But her statically monumental compositions are clearly distinguished by her dense material painting style. As neutral, innocuous motifs, they are among the initially most collected and exhibited works after her premature death.