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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006

PAULA MODERSOHN-BECKER: A Requiem, not a festival


Special to The Japan Times

The exhibition of Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings, and of artists associated with her, at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, is titled, "A Short, Intensive Festival." The overall emotional atmosphere generated by these paintings, however, is closer to a wake or a funeral than a joyful celebratory event.

News photo
Paula Modersohn-Becker's "Girl with Cat in Birch Forest" (1904)

Part of the cultural showcase "Deutschland in Japan 2005/06," the exhibition treats her as an artist of outstanding importance -- partly, I suspect, because she is a woman and we are living in politically correct times. However, Modersohn-Becker's portraits and self-portraits can make depressing viewing. The subject in "Seated Old Woman with Handkerchief" (1903) looks frankly suicidal, while "Seated Girl in Left Profile" (1899) looks as if she has just been arrested for shoplifting. But perhaps the scariest work is "Bust of Lee Hoetger with Flower" (1906) in which the artist's friend delicately holds a tiny blossom with a look of unspeakable evil.

Modersohn-Becker is generally considered to be part of the Expressionist movement, although she died in 1907, three years before the term was actually coined by the Czech critic Antonin Matejcek, who defined an Expressionist as someone who "wishes, above all, to express himself." A key to expressing the self was shutting out, at least temporarily, the external world and painting from deep within. "Impressions and mental images pass through [the Expressionist's] soul as through a filter," Matejcek explained, "which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence."

Of course Modersohn-Becker didn't know this when she started out as plain Paula Becker. The main point of interest of the exhibition is that the pictures clearly show her being tugged in both directions from the Impressionism of "Self-portrait" (1897) and the Dureresque realism of "Seated Old Woman, en face" (1899) to the culmination of her introspective style in "Girl with Cat in Birch Forest" (1904).

A lot of this had to do with the company she kept in the artistic colony of Worpswede, a village near Bremen set in the flat, boggy farmland of northern Germany, where Modersohn-Becker spent much time between 1897 and her death in 1907. The artists' colony, which still exists today, was the 1890s equivalent of a 1960s hippy commune.

Among the leading lights were Fritz Mackensen, who came to Worpswede after falling out with the German Academy and taught Paula Becker to paint; Otto Modersohn, another painter, whom she married in 1901; and the renowned poet Rainer Maria Rilke. But perhaps the leading artistic presence at the time was Heinrich Vogeler, technically the most gifted of all the artists at Worpswede, who painted a German version of Pre-Raphaelitism that sought formal inspiration in the clean lines and cold light of the Northern Renaissance painters, like Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Durer, and thematic inspiration in the folklore and fairy tales of German culture. Interestingly, while this style of art was later co-opted by the Nazi Party, Vogeler himself ended his life painting Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union.

More than half the works at the exhibition are by these artists, including a large number of Vogeler's copperplate prints, which exerted a powerful influence on turn-of-the-century Japanese art.

The art of Worpswede is often characterized by a mood of defensive Utopianism that infuses some of the paintings with an atmosphere of awkward rebellion. This is especially evident in the nudes, a subject that was still considered shocking outside mythical and historical representations. The cold, stiff pose of Modersohn-Becker's Dureresque "Large Standing Nude Girl" (1905/06) or Ottilie Reylander's over-earnest "Seated Nude Girl on Peasant Chair" (1899) contrast poorly with the richly decorated, confident, sensuous nudes of near contemporaries Paul Gauguin and Gustav Klimt, giving one a sense of taboos broken without relish.

On a wider level, this defensive Utopianism expresses itself as a rather po-faced zealousness. In accord with the later Expressionist analysis of Matejcek, many of Modersohn-Becker's images have clearly been passed through her ardent yet morose emotions, and this is not always a pretty sight.

What ultimately saves Modersohn-Becker's art and distinguishes it from most of the other Worpswede painters, who were effectively in retreat from the world, was her willingness to look further afield and find the artistic vocabulary that could give a more eloquent voice to her introspective sources of inspiration.

In particular, her frequent trips to Paris -- where she assimilated Van Gogh's animated brushwork, Cezanne's use of discrete blocks of color, and Gauguin's self-confident primitivism -- gave her the tools to create works such as "Girl with Cat in Birch Forest" or "Baby with a Mother's Hand" (1903) that combine deep emotion with an iconic sense of artistic balance.

But even in these, her best works, there is still a sense of art as an emotional and spiritual burden. Only in the brighter hues and less forced lines of "Self-portrait with an Amber Necklace" (1905), does she seem to be finally emerging.

Ultimately, Modersohn-Becker is not the great painter she is cracked up to be. Many of her best paintings are technique practice pieces that are stylistically at odds with her final "breakthrough" Expressionist style. She represents a period of art when it was a temporary substitute for religion among those people who had lost faith, and so took it and the emotions it expressed painfully seriously.

She is considered important because she was in a sense the Patti Smith of the Expressionist movement -- Smith was punk before punk, but it was the Sex Pistols who sold a lot more records. In this way both women feed into the ancient and still standing cultural idea of women having intuition and a sense of prophecy.

Modersohn-Becker could have been a great artist if she had lived longer, but, unfortunately, she did not live to see her transformation through, dying in childbirth at the tragically early age of 31.

"Paula Modersohn-Becker: A Short, Intensive Festival" will be at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama in Kanagawa Prefecture till March 26; For more information call (046) 875-2800 or visit www.mom.pref.kanagawa.jp/museum/


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