Inverting the Female Nude: Paula Modersohn-Becker
On the 8th of February 1876, German Expressionist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first recognised European modern female artist to paint the female nude, was born in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Germany. Becker grew up in a well-to-do, cultured family in Dresden, was privately art tutored in Worpswede, London, Bremen and at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, trained under Mackensen, Vogeler and made close friends with sculptor Clara Westhoff and the poet R. M. Rilke. She initially studied realism and naturalism, but later moved towards fauvism and expressionism. She died tragically of a post-birth leg embolism at the young age of 31. Largely unknown at the time of her death, her vast and quirky correspondence collection was discovered and published, bringing her life and art into the limelight.
Becker often displayed primitivist tendencies in her raw, pasty style of painting. Heavy shapes, thick fauve-style outlines, matt colour (mainly water pigments rather than oils) gave her portraits an unusual, modern flat quality. There is a general perception that the artist admired Gauguin; this is contradicted by the writer Averil King, who saw her work Nude Girl with Flower Vases (1906-7) as a “mock-imitation” of Gauguin and a stand against his exploitative view of young Tahitian women, depicted in his paintings serving the male artist. King also suggests that Modersohn-Becker’s two versions of her half-length Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace (1906), based on a photograph of herself, were corrective primitivist appropriations of three forms of painting generally attributed to male artists in the history of art: self-portraiture, depicting a woman holding or offering flowers and fruit, and the female nude.
In a comparison with Gustave Klimt’s pregnant nudes, Anne Higonnet added that, “Modersohn-Becker’s primitivism is more immediately evident than Klimt’s, and closer to home. She said quite openly that her heavy forms, thick lines, flat colours, as well as her associations between naked bodies and nature, were all inspired by what she perceived as the essential, eternal, primitive truths of local peasants and German earth. In an artistic climate which identified the aesthetically authentic with what had been previously dismissed as uncivilized or improperly carnal, the “ugly” subjects of the birth cycle could suddenly qualify as art, albeit marginal.” (Anne Higonnet, ‘Making Babies, Painting Bodies: Women, Art, and Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Productivity’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2009). King goes as far as to suggest that Becker’s portraits and self-portraits of 1905-6 were innovative enough to prefigure Picasso’s proto-Cubist portraits.
Above all, Becker is best remembered for creating the first naked self-portrait by a woman. “Her arms encircle her stomach, which has often been interpreted as a hint at pregnancy. But the gesture is to be seen rather as a metaphor, one that points out Modersohn-Becker’s twofold creative power as a woman and as an artist. She alone is able to give birth and be creative in an artistic sense.” (Rainer Stamm, ‘Paula Modersohn-Becker and the Body in Art’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2009). A woman painting herself as a full-size nude was simply inconceivable before 1906. Until that time, the naked woman served as a model, a study object, and muse, enabler of male talent and success.
Other female artists such as Suzanne Valadon, Amrita Sher-Gil and Frida Kahlo were to paint full-frontal views of themselves naked, but this was not until the 1930s. While Becker worked on her series of nude self-portraits in 1905-6, possibly n0 one except herself got to see them, until she passed in 1907. Significantly, Becker was an early anticipator of 1960s feminist art in which the artist’s naked body is put on display not only as an exhibitionist gesture or a pretext for the study of form, but as the actual medium of the art. Modersohn-Becker’s last words, “What a pity,” suggest that she had great hopes and confidence in her future career. The generally circulated photo of her holding her newborn is contradicted by her relatives’ memory of her tiny baby resting in a white bed covered with reproductions of her favourite Gauguins and Rodins, showing how eager the painter was to get back to work.