Samhain and the Birthday Project: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Good thing Samhain is a season and not just a day, huh :sweat_smile:


Grief is a sticky, heavy thing with a high viscosity and low hum. I talk about what I'm grieving by talking about other mournings I've held and walked alongside.


I've been working on a piece about/for Paula Modersohn-Becker for a small while, most substantially at the residency I had in July, 2019 at The Barn in Maine. Modersohn-Becker was a painter who died at the age of 31 after being put on bed rest following the birth of her first child. She had been weary of becoming a mother before advancing her work and the pregnancy occurred right after her reunion with her husband (Otto Modersohn) from whom she had been separated from. But she ultimately embraced the pregnancy and her daughter for the short time she had with her.


Paula Modersohn-Becker's work pretty much always takes my breath away. Historically, she's an early Expressionist, and working in an aesthetic that's cutting edge and radically different from her training and the popular work of her husband and many of their contemporaries from the Worpswede Colony. Her work uplifts women and children, and seems to bring to the surface of the canvas the vibrant, contemplative, and often playful inner lives of her subjects (including very notably herself). Her work often strikes me as a brilliant example of "the female gaze" - something I often have trouble naming but I know it when I see it. It also feels artistically mature and confident, much I suspect like Paula herself.


You can of course read all about her if you're not familiar with her work - please do. Self portraits are radical acts of creation and Paula is one of the earliest known female painters in "the West" to have done this deeply imaginative, conscious, self-refracting and re-making work all while pursuing a life that she could claim all her own.


This week of ancestor work mostly involved me inviting them in, meditating on what I know of each artist as a person and their work (or my ever expanding and deepening relationship with their work). I've struggled to find the center of the work I've been creating for/about Paula, Being Here is Everything (or Meeting and Mourning Paula). It feels a bit slippery and elusive. Maybe it's because I am distracted by the questions I have for Paula or because I'm humbled by the virtuosity and confidence of her work. I had a similar experience in my Samhain time with her, as evidenced in the video. I thought I had recorded the piece on a second camera and that the GoPro was set to a normal record - somehow it was set to time lapse. So the piece I have is a documentation of process - with kitten, who might be the most enjoyable part of it.


Some of the things I think about most fervently and frequently when I try to encounter Paula and do encounter her work:


- Her best friend, essentially from art school is the sculptor Clara Westoff, another force of an artist (who is sadly most notably later known as Rainer Maria Rilke's wife - it's all complicated, shockingly enough). There's a wonderful story in PMB's writing of her and Clara ringing church bells all their own, sending the small town or Worpswede into a confusing tizzy. Their "punishment" was to paint landscapes. Their friendship was complicated by their marriages - the two couples considered themselves a family, though Rilke and Paula had their own friendship outside of their spouses. When I think about the intense intimacy that sharing one's work and processes creates, especially at those heightened, heated moments in our lives, the intensity of both women's work, the strains each felt placed on them by marriage and motherhood, and the creating of our chosen families, both Paula and Clara feel intensely close and familiar. That Clara would outlive Paula by decades simply breaks my heart.


- Her pregnancy self portraits may have been painted before her pregnancy, creating a layered experience of the performance of self, of social roles, an amazing example of the radical work of creating ourselves in self portraiture. Her self portraits are more akin to monologues than photographs.


- Her marriage fascinates me, resonates with me, and scares me. Otto was recently widowed and already had a young daughter when their courtship began, their marriage comes quickly, Paula is in the position of being a stepmother while remaining committed to her art (and life). Otto is older, has clear expectations for his wife even if he is also the co-founder of the artists' colony they met at. She loves him, in the way that feels wholly confusing and yet, how familiar is this - the talented mentor, the young artist, her brilliance met by his own and yet - patriarchy, power. What I truly grasp at understanding is what happens after Paula's passing. Otto Modersohn receives the Goethe award from Hitler in 1940, he speaks at the Ministry of Public Engagement and Propaganda a year before he dies. All the while Paula's art had been deemed degenerate art - censored, stolen, lost on purpose. It's not that I don't understand how we can marry and love the people who lock our art (or us) in the attics of "degenerateness" - the perversion of womxn artists, of "lives of ... significant action" (The Madwoman in the Attic) that are ultimately silenced.


I know that I shall not live very long. But I wonder, is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful because it lasts longer? And my life is a celebration, a short, intense celebration. My powers of perception are becoming finer, as if I were supposed to absorb everything in the few years that are still to be offered me, everything. My sense of smell is unbelievably keen at present. With almost every breath I take, I get a new understanding of the linden tree, of ripened wheat, of hay, and of mignonette. I suck everything up into me. And if only now love would blossom for me, before I depart; and if I can paint three good pictures, then I shall go gladly, with flowers in my hair. It makes me happy again as it did when I was a child, to weave wreaths of flowers. When it's warm and I'm tired, I sit down and weave a yellow garland, a blue one, and one of thyme. I was thinking today about a picture of girls playing music under a cloud-covered sky, in gray and green tones, the girls white, gray and muted red. A reaper in a blue smock. He mows down all the little flowers in front of my door. I think that perhaps I, too, will not last much longer. I know now of two other pictures with Death in them; I wonder if perhaps I shall still get to paint them? - Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals



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