January 2014

Sally Deskins


Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki

Diane Radycki, in Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist, places the artist (1876-1907; identified with dozens of movements) alongside Picasso and ahead of other famous artists of the era. The author's writing is personable, astute and, clear -- but most notable are her discoveries.

Radycki not only establishes Modersohn-Becker as a long-lost front-runner, she overturns art history's approaches. The author illuminates the artist's innovative approach to gender imagery while recognizing the volatility of defining a woman as woman, artist, and mother, still relevant today. The book makes a major contribution to understanding the significant role of women artists and the subjectivity of art history; as Radycki writes, "Long before women artists may meet any obstacle internal to themselves, they met an inarticulate disconnect in the vocabulary of art history."

Radycki analyzes Modersohn-Becker's artistic, social, and political milieus in the context of the artist's four genres (landscape, still life, and figure -- with particular attention to the nude). She includes corresponding quotes and journal and letter excerpts, with integrated photography and art. She begins with Modersohn-Becker's upbringing and family, including one horrific childhood incident that would resonate in her life and work: she saw her eleven-year-old cousin die gruesomely in a tragic accident. This foreshadows her frequent imagery of protector and child. Other Expressionist artists, including Modersohn-Becker's forerunner Edvard Munch, also drew on youthful tragedy, but instead of intimating her work with obvious narrative like the others, she painted "without event; a loaded, blunt, and existential presence... a twentieth-century attitude." Radycki also points out discrepancies between Modersohn-Becker's style and Impressionism, writing of one her landscapes, "This painting is not about time of day, but about presence and absence."

Radycki scrutinizes Modersohn-Becker's figures and still lives, specifying the divergent intention from male counterparts, from nudity to food arrangement. For example, Modersohn-Becker often painted the jug, an age-old metaphor of the womb, when she was contemplating motherhood: empty, holding flowers, brimming with golden sunflowers, and on her easel to celebrate the birth of her baby.

The difference between Modersohn-Becker's female nudes and those of Expressionists and Cubists, Radycki reveals, lies in her selected models: "females at ages outside the sexual economy: not Matisse's wife, not Picasso's whores, but the postmenopausal old woman and the premenstrual girl."

Radycki interprets Modersohn-Becker's child-posers: "it was not the artistic product of children but their very being on the precipice of adolescence that signified modernity and meaning....When Modersohn-Becker put two figures together -- regardless of their ages -- the dominant relationship was protective, a variant of Mother and Child."

Exclusive to Modersohn-Becker and art history, per Radycki: the full-length nude self-portrait. Radycki lists self-portraits including Picasso's sober "Self Portrait after Gosol," a nude torso (that came later), and Suzanne Valadon's nude torso postdating Modersohn-Becker's by decades. "As for self portraits that are both life-size and full length nude, hers have no known precedents."

Further, the author affirms Modersohn-Becker's relevance to modernism and feminism: "The awkward model, the unfinished age; the awkward form, the crude finish -- they are of a piece. If art history is puzzled, feminist literary criticism has observed that singularity and awkwardness are characteristic of women's creative production. Awkward (literary) structures make visible the tension between narrative expectations, period conventions, and attempts to break from those conventions. It seems worth considering how these stresses manifest in visual arts."

Radycki surveys other artists who painted the nude and their prevalence and discongruity from Modersohn-Becker, including Titian, Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso. She concludes:

There is no male precedent for what she was doing, nor could there be. She painted the female body from within its immanent life, a radical spectacle of skin and pubic hair. In her work the erotic body no more wars with a maternal body than culture disconnects from nature. Any comparison for her paintings come not from art's history of the female nude, but from future twentieth-century body imagery... not only could she do it, she did it first.

As her daughter's life began on November 2, 1907, her friend visited: "The smiling artist kept saying of her healthy newborn, 'You should see her in the nude!' Mother and child = artist and nude model."

A few weeks later, the blissful mother-artist died at thirty-one, leaving her work to blossom without her witness.

It was about time for this artist to reach fame as Picasso did over one hundred years ago. She painted full-length nude self portrait before anyone; painted awkward youth in a style contrasted to Munch; painted mother-child not idolized as in art history, but as human; recognized the "vibration" of art before Kandinsky; and painted nudes not idealized as Gauguin. Radycki asserts Modersohn-Becker was not comparable to her peers but to artists of future generations.

This could be a required reading for any art history curriculum, or basis for an inspirational film documentary or drama. More people must know of the artist for her forward-thinking work, and appreciate female perspective, frequently erased from history. From this artist to Radycki, thank you for writing this ultra-necessary book.

Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300185300
256 pages

Sally Deskins is an artist and arts writer specializing in women and feminist writers and artists. She lives in Morgantown, WV with her husband and two children. Find her online at femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com and sallydeskins.tumblr.com.