October 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Beggar at the Door: On Paula Modersohn-Becker's Letters and Journals

Reading through Paula Moderson-Becker: The Letters and Journals, these hundreds of pages, turning the pages sometimes a little too violently, risking a tear in the paper, I sometimes felt a little like the narrator of that Henry James short story, "The Figure in the Carpet." If you recall, in that hilarious yarn, a novelist, Vereker, in a moment of uncharacteristic indiscretion, tells a young critic that there's a secret something -- "'It's the very string,' he said, 'that my pearls are strung on!'" -- which forms the whole impetus of his art but whose existence no one has ever guessed at, to say nothing of discovering what it is. Vereker, of course, repents his whim and tells the young critic to buzz off because he'll never tell. The critic spends the rest of the story in anxious agony. Until I didn't find it in her Letters and Journals, I didn't really know I'd been searching for some similar figure in the carpet belonging to German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), had no idea I was trying to close the gap between artist and artwork. But I was, and the gap remains deliriously wide.

Her paintings are the best kind: visionary, meaning they paint things as they really are rather than how they only seem to be in three dimensions and subordinated to the tedious laws of physics. They display all the eye for color that CÚzanne has (but are more humane because more grotesque); the faces are sometimes bent and thinned like El Greco's and sometimes plumped and smeared with ochre like Gaugin's; and everything is gloriously burning in the frame although the scene is never quite as gaudily aflame as in Van Gogh at his gnarliest, which is a compliment.

So, what sort of person must she have been? Something, you might assume, like her paintings. Like Joan of Arc, her eyes two white crackling coals? Well, read this letter to her husband and tell me what you think. The style's the man, they say:

These last two weeks have gone very well for me. Night and day I've been most intensely thinking about my painting, and I have been more or less satisfied with everything I've done. I am slackening a little now, not working as much, and no longer so satisfied. But all in all, I still have a loftier and happier perspective on my art than I did in Worpswede. But it does demand a very, very great deal from me -- working and sleeping in the same room with my paintings is a delight.

If the paintings were done by a demigod, then this is the prose of a mortal. Her character is remarkably consistent throughout the stuff collected here: self-effacing, apologetic, and, despite her bohemian vocation, utterly bourgeois in her desire for self-improvement, her dread of laziness, and her meteorological monitoring of happiness and satisfaction levels. In her writing, she expresses a kind of automatic joy for nature, in long paragraphs, but description of a kind that a single glaring brushstroke of one of her paintings could handily efface.

But is it right to be so surprised? Wallace Stevens, pacing in a gray flannel suit, could dictate a memo on casualty insurance and then turn around and give life to "Peter Quince at the Clavier." Confronted with Stevens and Modersohn-Becker and so many other banal-looking sorcerers, one is tempted to affirm the adage about perfection of the work and perfection of the life; the more artistic the one, the less artistic the other.

But these pat generalizations are maybe only a way of warding off the essential mysteriousness of art. A summary of this collection could find worse expression than in Strickland's prosaic refrain from The Moon and Sixpence: "I've got to paint."

She is herself all too aware of the mystery, including the older sense of the word as the esoteric knowledge of a trade guild:

If I could really paint! A month ago I was so sure of what I wanted. Inside me I saw it out there, walked around with it like a queen, and was blissful. Now the veils have fallen again, gray veils, hiding the whole idea from me. I stand like a beggar at the door, shivering in the cold, pleading to be let in.

The black box, the occluded molten core of her inspiration, remains as hidden from Modersohn-Becker the diarist as it is from us, her readers. Only Modersohn-Becker the painter ever gains admittance to the sanctum sanctorum.

Her life was short, ended by embolism following childbirth at age thirty-one, and, in his introduction Gunter Busch tells us that she "was allotted only ten years for her life's work; three of them were years of study. But in the seven years of artistic production she worked on no fewer than 560 paintings and completed more than 700 drawings and 13 etchings. During her lifetime she sold no more than three or possible four pictures, two of them to her friends the Rilkes and Vogelers." That's Rilke as in Rainer Maria, by the way, who serves as one of her regular correspondents here. Reading a letter from her father who thunders forth at her in full Polonius mode ("Your duty will now be to merge with your future husband, to dedicate yourself completely to his ways and wishes..."), one senses from where her overdeveloped superego might have sprung. Whether or not the emotional toll was worth it, this sense of duty and subordination (not, as it turned out, to her husband, but to her painting) gifted her with factory-like productivity. Her father, a biographical note tells us, was a man pensioned early from his job at the Office for the Management of Railroads and was always haunted by the feeling that he was a failure. Inheriting this wound, consciously or not, his artist daughter proceeded to nervously and worriedly churn out a constellation of masterpieces.

"I have been reading King Lear and am again cast completely under the spell of its magnificence," she wrote to her husband. "That is where I also read: 'What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.' I find that a familiar feeling." Once again, she grasps by instinct the incapacity of language and the extent to which social failure, such as her failure to sell her paintings or Cordelia's failure to practice flattery, may be the necessary condition of goodness or art.

Throughout this collection, several of her letters and postcards are reproduced as photocopies, revealing that she had often illuminated her handwritten texts with marginal drawings, giving even a postcard to mom a Blakean aura. A collection featuring full-color reproductions would be magnificent and would give back her notes the otherworldly sense they once carried.

Any contemporary person who reads a collection of letters is inclined to wonder which age had the more affected communication: ours or the olden times. A physical letter sent to a particular person is a private object but also potentially one that could be made public, collected, and printed; as letter collections and journals became more esteemed it's hard to think that this didn't alter how they were written by increasing the self-consciousness of the writer. On the other hand, it's even harder to imagine even the most pretentious literary type today pausing over a turn of phrase in an e-mail, wondering how posterity might enjoy or not enjoy it; something about the medium turns everything into ephemera. The public writing in our day is delivered straight to the public via the internet, its trillion serpentining channels, whether the public gives a damn or not; the public will read a small fraction of it and then eventually it all goes into the cosmic incinerator like Charles Foster Kane's knickknacks, and the big black smoke column rises. Of course all writing is ephemeral in the long run.

What's gone from current correspondence is the slight whiff of mortality that came with writing on physical paper or parchment; when you write down your thoughts and seal them up and send them away, you experience something like the severance of spirit and flesh. The fear of death is somehow interfused with all great art, even with Modersohn-Becker's fifteen-second postcard sketches.

Recently, I read James Shapiro's history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy and came away thinking how little it would really alter the experience of the plays if we knew as much about Shakespeare as we do about, say, Samuel Johnson. What we learn about Modersohn-Becker, even from her own pen, seems ultimately superfluous to the subtle and sublime communications found in paintings like "Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace" or "Head of a Girl at a Window."