While the mass of commercial galleries long ago dispersed from Midtown in search of more affordable quarters, several stalwarts have remained on Fifty-seventh Street, none more venerable than Galerie St. Etienne, a showcase for Expressionist and Primitive masters. A common theme among its artists, from Schiele to Kollwitz to Grandma Moses, is humanism, a chord that’s once again plucked to softly haunting effect in the current show of paintings and works on paper by Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker studied drawing and painting in Berlin in the 1890s, an atmosphere that was not hospitable to women artists. (Only a decade earlier, there had been no place for Kollwitz to study from a live nude model.) At 23 years of age she moved to an artists’ colony in rural Worpswede, where the emphasis was on the observation of nature in an agrarian setting.
Modersohn-Becker’s earliest work indicates an acceptance of the colony’s precepts, with an earthiness out of the van Gogh playbook, as may be seen in the splotched, ruddy face of Half-Length Portrait of a Girl in the Sun, Before a Wide Landscape, and the charcoal Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left. But the countryside’s charms were limited for a young woman of ability and ambition, and her earnest attempts at landscape painting are among her least memorable works. For one thing, she doesn’t seem to have possessed the requisite interest in atmosphere—she was far more fluent with a subject that could be contained on a table top, witness Still-Life with Yellow Bowl and Earthenware Pitcher—let alone a lasting romantic attachment to the pastoral. For another, the imminent revolutions in modern art were to occur in urban studios, rather than the field, as had happened in the 1870s. Presentiments of future shocks can be read in Modersohn-Becker’s journals: “My own personal feeling, that is the main thing. Once I have got that pinned down, clear in its form and color, only then do I introduce things from nature, which will make my picture have a natural effect.”
After homage has been paid to the aggressively virile stance of German Expressionism, it is Modersohn-Becker’s art that gets quietly beneath one’s skin and stays there.
From a woman, the insistence on “my own personal feeling” was then strong stuff. Given Modersohn-Becker’s objectives, it was a necessarily forthright attitude. According to her biographer Diane Radycki—and I cannot think of an example to contradict her—Modersohn-Becker was the first woman artist to paint a nude self-portrait. Her very presentation of the subject was a radical departure from the history of a male-dominated viewpoint, in which the figure was usually offered for its sexual allure. On the face of it, her Reclining Female Nude appears to accord with this tradition, but it’s not a very sensual image after all, and, assuming one’s predilection runs toward flesh soft to the touch, the coruscating strips of paint that Modersohn-Becker dragged across the figure’s ample torso are more scabrous than erotic. The amatory content of the pose has been purposefully subverted. In some ways it’s the least characteristic—and least appealing—work in the show, and conflicts with her signature broad treatment of the figure.
Radycki makes further heady claims on Modersohn-Becker’s behalf: she believes that any influences with respect to Picasso were mutual, and that the latter’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein may have been resolved as a result of seeing Modersohn-Becker’s work. It’s an intriguing theory, especially since Modersohn-Becker was restlessly shuttling back-and-forth between Germany and Paris, leaving a husband and step-daughter behind to be in the thick of emerging movements in modern art.
A rapid evolution was required to go from the conventional if unsentimental figure drawings in Studies of Three Children, to Seated Girl with Black Hat, Holding Flower in her Right Hand, and Portrait of the Artist’s Sister Herma with Amber Necklace, yet all were accomplished within a roughly five-year span. In Seated Girl, the echoes of van Gogh from just a few years before have been replaced by a “personal feeling,” simultaneously leaden in palette while unexpectedly lilting in sentiment. The portrait of her sister Herma is a gem whose flatly painted and elegantly abstracted surface paralleled the concurrent experiments of Matisse and Picasso—Cézanne was the shared point of departure. That such works haven’t received proper recognition in this country must owe something to the chauvinism of the art business and the subtlety of Modersohn-Becker’s voice. After homage has been paid to the aggressively virile stance of German Expressionism, it is Modersohn-Becker’s art that gets quietly beneath one’s skin and stays there.
Modersohn-Becker’s evolution had to be rapid. At age thirty-one she decided to have a child, and was dead of an embolism eighteen days after giving birth. Her genius was but partially fulfilled. Virtually unknown at the time of her death, she is now considered one of the first and most important modern masters of the twentieth century. “Now that I’m free,” she wrote a friend in 1906, “I will make something of myself. I almost believe, by this year …. I’m painting life-size nudes and still lifes with faith in God and in myself.” That faith was both short-lived and well-founded.