Paula Modersohn-Becker was a conflicted character. With the arrival of avant-garde, women could enter the art world on more favourable terms and consolidate their femininity in the works. The self-portrait was one of the most effective means to express own identity and Becker used it throughout her short, yet prolific career.
The first woman artist credited with painting female nudes, Modersohn-Becker is a forgotten star. Her husband, Otto Modersohn, said of her: ‘No one understands her – no one. No one ever asks about her work. The fact that she is somebody and is accomplishing something, no one thinks about that.’ Living in the shadow, Becker exhibited for the first time in 1899 to meet with harsh critcisim. Although she has been supported by her partner, he often felt neglected and overwhelmed with Paula’s sense of independence, ambition and artistic egotism.
Following in the footsteps of expressionists, her works carried hints of realism and naturalism. During her visits to Paris, she studied the works of Cezanne, Rousseau and Gauguin, whose style was her foundation, yet she simplified the ultimately expressive works. In self-portraits, she shows a raw version of herself, without any embellishments or attributes that would elevate her persona. She seems remote, distanced, staring into the void. Her art has a feeling of anxiety and nostalgia, a form of self-scrutiny, as Becker was on a constant quest for self-fulfillment.
When in Paris in the early 1900s, Becker said: ‘ I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensely happy period of my life.’ Her aspiration to become and create meaning haunted her like a ghost and kept artist’s mind on the verge of doubts and security. She finally reached peace in 1907 upon her premature death of embolism. Now, her works are assembled into a major retrospective that sheds new light on her artistic input.
Paula Modersohn-Becker: L’intensite d’un regard runs until August, 21 at the Musee D’art Moderne De La Ville de Paris.