This series started on a school field trip. I taught seventh grade English for fifteen years, as part of a wonderful interdisciplinary team. Every winter, we used to take our students on a snowshoe field trip in the nearby Adirondack Mountains to look for animal tracks and other signs of life in the winter woods. On one of those field trips, we saw this.
It was just a little hole in the snow, with some tiny tracks leading up to it. The naturalist guiding us could have walked right on past. But instead, she stopped our group and said, “Oh! Everyone gather around and look at this!” When we were all circled around, she pointed down and said breathlessly, “Do you know what this means?” She paused. Then she whispered. “This means that we’ve had a visitor from…the subnivean zone!”
We stood in hushed silence for a moment until someone said, “What’s that?” And our guide explained that the subnivean zone is the fancy phrase used to describe the secret network of tunnels and tiny caves that exist under the winter snow. All the smallest forest animals knew about it, she told us, and they’d go down there to be a little warmer, a little safer from predators. And then we continued on down the path.
But the rest of the day, as I padded through the woods on my snowshoes, I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said. We’d been hiking for three or four miles…and all that time, there’d been a secret invisible world going on down there, under the snow? I asked a lot more questions. We talked more about the different animals who make their winter homes under the snow and the creatures who find their way through the woods above. And when I got back to the school bus, after I took attendance and made sure we hadn’t left any seventh graders out in the woods, I started writing. I didn’t even have a notebook with me that day – my first draft of Over and Under the Snow was written on the back of the attendance list for the field trip, in bumpy, school-bus handwriting. But it couldn’t wait, because I was fuelled by wonder that afternoon.
That’s what we do as writers of children’s books – we wonder. We stop everyone in their tracks. We slow down the day for a few minutes to say, “Look at this! Look more closely… Isn’t it amazing?” And that’s how I know when I have a story idea with the staying power to grow into a picture book. If I’m feeling that sense of awe at how things work, how things are, how amazing this part of our natural world is, then kids are likely to feel that way, too.
After Over and Under the Snow was published and doing well in the world, Chronicle asked illustrator Christopher Silas Neal and I if there might be another hidden world we’d like to explore. We emailed back and forth a bit, talking about the things that made us wonder. And we discovered that we both loved our vegetable gardens. Not just the weeding and tomato-eating part of gardening…but the wondering part. We’re both parents who love getting down on our bellies to look more closely at the critters that inhabit our gardens, and that was the wonder that sparked our second book together, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt.
Our third book together, Over and Under the Pond, starts in that same place – with a familiar setting and a desire to slow down for a closer look. When I was getting ready to work on this book, I went back to the setting of Over and Under the Snow– the trails of the Paul Smiths Visitors Interpretive Center in the Adirondacks – but in a different season. The pond that had been covered with ice and snow in January felt like an entirely different place in July — a green, lush, buzzing ecosystem, just waiting to be explored. So I scheduled one of the centre’s guided canoe trips and spent a day paddling through the reeds. We marvelled at the tiny water striders skating on the pond’s surface, stared up at woodpecker scars on a tall tree by the water, and gasped as an American Bittern fluttered up from the grass.
There were families along on the trip, and I watched them, too. With their phones turned off and tucked away in waterproof bags, they paddled through the quiet together, whispering about the minnows and wondering what might live in that hollow log on shore. Slowing down in places like this feeds us in important ways. As a writer, I walked away from my canoe at the end of the day full of ideas, full of images and poetry and fresh air. I was ready to hit the library, finish my research, and get to work on Over and Under the Pond. But maybe even more important than that, spending time in the quiet of a cold snowy trail or a warm mountain pond reminds us to slow down. To look. Listen. And wonder. That’s my biggest hope for these books – that they’ll bring families together on the couch for a cozy story and then outdoors to wonder, too.
Over and Under the Pond is out now, order your copy today.
The New Old House – projects that prove adaption and restoration is worthwhile.
This beautiful book presents 18 private historic homes, from North America to Europe, and traces the ingenious ways architects have revitalised and refreshed them for a new generation.
Each project address such timely factors as sustainability, multiculturalism, preservation and style, and demonstrate the unique beauty and elegance that comes from the interweaving of modernity and history. This bright and bold look at combining historic and modern architecture is sure to inspire architects and dreamers alike.
Click here to find out more about The New Old House.
This collection of children’s books is a must have for your young reader’s shelf – proving to young girls and boys that girls can do anything they put their minds to.
1. Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty illustrated by David Roberts
‘Rosie should indeed be revered: why, she’s practically a poster girl for positivity and empowerment. And we’re all in favour of gals excelling in the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Way to go, Rosie!’Catherine O’Dolan – My Little Style File
Rosie may seem quiet during the day, but at night she’s a brilliant inventor of gizmos and gadgets who dreams of becoming a great engineer. When her Great, Great Aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter) comes for a visit and mentions her one unfinished goal – to fly – Rosie sets to work building a contraption to make her Aunt’s dream come true. Her invention complete, Rosie attempts a test flight–but after a moment, the machine crashes to the ground. Discouraged, Rosie deems the invention a failure, but Aunt Rose insists that on the contrary, it was a raging success.
With a message everyone should remember: the only true failure is quitting, Rosie Revere, Engineeris a book that will encourage young girls to believe in themselves and explore all the things they enjoy.
2. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood illustrated by Meg Hunt
“Deborah Underwood’s playful text provides god-robots, tools, sprockets, and a heroine who elects to explore, rather settle for marriage and Meg Hunts original, galactic illustrations remind young readers not to limit their dreams to the earthbound.” The Guardian: Picture books that draw the line against pink stereotypes of girls.
Once upon a planetoid, amid her tools and sprockets, a girl named Cinderella dreamed of fixing fancy rockets.
With a little help from her fairy god-robot, Cinderella is going to the ball. But when the prince’s ship has mechanical trouble, someone will have to zoom to the rescue! Readers will thank their lucky stars for this irrepressible fairy tale retelling, its independent heroine and its stellar happy ending – this bold retelling proves girls can be the heroine of their own stories.
3. Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty illustrated by David Roberts
“As brilliant and inspirational as the other titles in Andrea and David’s series, and a book destined to be talked about and adored far and wide. Brilliant!” Read It Daddy Blog: Book of the Week
Why are there pointy things stuck to a rose? Why are there hairs growing inside your nose? When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it’s up to her to find the source. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conducts scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!
Inspired by real-life makers such as Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, Ada Twist, Scientist champions girl power and women scientists and brings welcome diversity to picture books about girls in science. Touching on themes of never giving up and problem solving, Ada comes to learn that her questions might not always lead to answers, but rather to more questions. She may never find the source of the stink, but with a supportive family and the space to figure it out, she’ll be able to feed her curiosity in the ways a young scientist should.
Flying the flag for both diverse reads and girls in STEM, Ada Twist, Scientist is a must-read for kids everywhere!
4. Ada’s Ideas by Fiona Robinson
“Fiona Robinson has created an originally illustrated, empathetically produced tale of a significant character in our history. Highlighting this incredible story of an eighteenth century young woman in complementary mixed media illustrations makes for a truly engaging read.”Picture Books Blogger
This non-fiction picture book about Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, is a compelling portrait of a woman who saw the potential for numbers to make art and the power of imagination.
Give your young reader a they can look-up-to for her intelligence, perseverance and creativity.
5. Hot Pink by Susan Goldman Rubin
This non-fiction biography of Elsa Schiapaerelli will inspire and educate.Schiaparelli was one of the most innovative designers in the early 20th century, credited with many firsts: trompe l’oeil sweaters with collars and bows knitted in; wedge heels; shoulder bags; and even the concept of a runway show for presenting collections. Elsa Schiapaerelli defied expectations, tradition and shocked the world.
A bright and bold children’s books that proves that you can still be a BOSS in hot pink.
Share your favourite with #InternationalWomansDay, because there has never been a more important time to celebrate womankind and show young readers that girls can do anything.
Meet Kiyo Aragai one of the 52 centenarians photographed by KarstenThormaehlen for his new book Aging Gracefully.
Aging Gracefully invites readers to look into the face of a century of life experience with portraits of centenarians captured by Thormaehlen’s compassionate, minimalist lens. The striking photographs are accompanied by short bios of the centenarians, featuring quotes and wisdom on love, food, humour and living with grace.
The following is an extract from Aging Gracefully.
BORN SEPTEMBER 10, 1914,IN ASAHIKAWA, HOKKAIDO, JAPAN
SAPPORO, HOKKAIDO, JAPAN
Kiyo says she had a free, idyllic childhood and a wonderful marriage “full of happiness and without any arguments.” She has her husband to thank for the fact that she has become such a good cook, “thanks to his wonderful sense of taste and his weakness for good food.” The couple travelled a lot, including to places abroad like Hawaii. She says she does not really have anything to complain about, nor does she have any regrets. She is at peace with herself.
Aging Gracefully, a glorious celebration of humanity and the human spirit’s capacity for happiness, is on sale 7th March 2017. Find out more and order your copy here.
We are taking a trip to South London for our Bookstore of the Month this March: three cheers for Tales on Moon Lane!
Describe Tales On Moon Lane in three words.
Stories. Theatre. Community.
Where is your favourite spot in the store?
Our illustrator’s wall, where visiting authors and illustrators have been doodling for over a decade. Among our favourite doodles are Jan Pienkowski’sMog and John Burningham’s sketch of Borka.
Give us a brief history of Tales On Moon Lane
This year, Tales on Moon Lane is celebrating its 14th anniversary as one of London’s top bookshops. Here is a short time-line of our history:
2016 – www.cantputitdown.co.uk is launched to help get self-published authors off the ground. Tales On Moon Lane bookseller Jennifer Bell publishes her bestselling debut novel, The Crooked Sixpence with Penguin Random House.
2015 – With the help of a James Patterson Grant, Tamara launches the Teens on Moon Lane initiative, alongside a teen-orientated website with content from the UK’s top bloggers. A pop-up Tales On Moon Lane shop is set up in Harris Girls Academy.
2014 – The shop is awarded Julia Donaldson’s bookshop of the month for September.
2013 – Hodder publish Amazing Esme and the Pirate Circus. The shop is devastated by a local flood which destroys most of the stock. It closes for three months.
2012 – Tales On Moon Lane is nominated for the Eleanor Farjeon Award – for distinguished service to the world of British Children’s Books. The second book in the Amazing Esme series, Amazing Esme and the Sweetshop Circus is published.
2011 – Bookshop manager, George Hanratty wins Young Bookseller of the Year and Tales On Moon Lane wins Children’s Bookseller of the Year for the second time at the BA awards. Tamara’s book Amazing Esme is published.
2010 – In conjunction with Dulwich Picture Gallery, Tales On Moon Lane hosts the first annual Children’s Literacy Festival, aiming to inspire a life-long love of reading.
2009 – Tamara writes a book for 6 – 8 year olds called Amazing Esme and gets a publishing deal with Hodder. The shop launches the WeRead award in conjunction with UCS.
2008 – Tamara and her team win Children’s Bookseller of the Year at the Bookseller’s Association Awards.
2007 – The shop is highly commended for the Walker Books Children’s Bookshop of the Year. Time Out names Tales On Moon Lane as one of the Top Five bookshops in London.
2006 – Tales on Moon Lane, as it is now called, is featured in Time Out’s Top Thirty Independent Bookshops in London. The shop launches regular half-term literary festivals, free to all.
2005 – The range of older fiction is expanded and the back-room goes through a refit. Tamara gives birth to her second child, Xander, who becomes the bookshop baby for the first year of his life.
2004 – The shop celebrates its one year anniversary!
2003 – Whilst still teaching at a local school, owner Tamara Macfarlane opens a bookshop, originally called ‘Tell Tales’ on Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill.
Do you have a store pet?
Yes, we have a schnoodle puppy named Pluto. She spent her first few months of life snuggled up behind the desk and now enjoys scampering around the shop floor. She loves all our customers, especially the children. The tag on her collar says ‘I belong to Tales On Moon Lane.’
Do you have a favourite author? If yes, who is it?
Our team of booksellers have wide ranging tastes in children’s books, but two of our favourite children’s authors also happen to be part of our bookselling team – Tamara Macfarlane, author of the Amazing Esme series published by Hodder and Jennifer Bell, author of The Uncommoners series published by Penguin Random House.
What is your favourite opening line from a book?
We have lots of favourites! A recent one that sticks in the mind is the opening of Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell: ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’
What was the last book you read?
Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen – a brilliant humorous YA family drama.
What is your favourite A&CB book?
We all like Alphablock – a fantastic interactive board book, so beautifully designed!
What is your favourite book?
We all have so many favourites! Picture books sell particularly well at Tales On Moon Lane, and one of our shop bestsellers is I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen – the whole team love it to bits.
Share a #Shelfie with us.
You will find Tales on Moon Lane at: 25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London, SE24 9JU
It is a sad truth that there is still a gender bias in the art world. The facts speak for themselves: an audit of the art world in 2013 showed that every artist in the top 100 auction sales was a man, and just 8% of public art in central London was created by women(1). During Frieze week, the busiest time in the art calendar, a mere 33% of solo shows were by women(2). Between 2007 – 2014 the Tate Modern granted women artists solo exhibitions only 25 percent of the time(3).
To put it plainly: works by women artists are still worth far less than similar works by men from the same generation and location.
BUT things are changing and Chronicle Books are adding their voices to the battle cry of groups like the Guerrilla Girls with a new book; Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order).
Historically, major women artists have been excluded from the mainstream art canon. Aligned with the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, Broad Strokes offers an entertaining corrective to that omission. Art historian Bridget Quinn delves into the lives and careers of 15 brilliant female artists in text that’s smart, feisty, educational and an enjoyable read. Replete with beautiful reproductions of the artists’ works and contemporary portraits of each artist by renowned illustrator Lisa Congdon, this is art history from 1600 to the present day for the modern art lover, reader and feminist.
I love waking in my studio, seeing my pictures come alive in the light. Sometimes I feel it is myself that kicks inside me, myself I must give suck to, love . . .
—ADRIENNE RICH, “PAULA BECKER TO CLARA WESTHOFF”
IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that the annus mirabilis of twentieth-century Modernism occurred, quite specifically, in 1907 in the city of Paris, making way for everything that was to follow.
Every movement loves a start date. But, of course, Modernism was well underway before 1907. The Romantics had already depicted a world devoid of organized religion, but soulful and sublime; Realists had given us the heroism of everyday life (“How great and poetic we are in our cravats and our patent-leather boots,” said Baudelaire); the Impressionists faithfully captured on canvas the play of light across skin, field, water, and air; and Post-Impressionists took such facts to the unseen world of spirit and emotion, what Symbolist (and proto-Expressionist) Edvard Munch called, “the soul’s inner pictures.”
So what happened in 1907 that branded it ground zero of twentieth-century Modernism?
One of the oldest things in art: the female nude. As painted by two men.
In the spring of 1907, former Fauve bad boy Henri Matisse showed his Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra), an unclothed woman in the odalisque tradition (reclining, Orientalizing, sexualized) reduced to disjointed color, line, and form.
As if summoned to a duel, Picasso answered by painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a shocking and disorienting brothel scene credited with ushering in Cubism. “The contest for the supremacy of the avant-garde was being fought in the arena of the female nude, painted large in scale,” writes Cubism scholar Natasha Staller. Contest is certainly le mot juste in this case.
Yet that contest was underway before 1907. The previous year, a nude as groundbreaking as those by Matisse and Picasso had already been painted, by a woman. In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait, Age 30, 6th Wedding Day, the unclothed subject is the artist herself. Standing life-size, she stares out at us, comfortable and impassive. From the waist up she wears only an amber necklace that rests between her small breasts. Her left hand holds a kind of skirt or drapery around her waist, while her right rests—protectively? meaningfully?—above her protruding belly.
It’s painting as manifesto, not one brushstroke less so than Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In a New Yorker interview, art historian Diane Radycki describes Modersohn-Becker as “the missing piece in the history of twentieth-century Modernism.”
“Cézanne is the father of us all,” is a line attributed both to Picasso and to Matisse. Certainly it’s true he fathered them both.
It’s equally true that Modersohn-Becker is mother to an alternative strand of Modernism: psychologically probing, personally brave, flagrantly and unrepentantly female. Think Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel, Ana Mendieta, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, and countless more. The list is eminent and long.
* * * * *
I like to picture Modersohn-Becker in a cold Parisian flat, in the spring of 1906. She’s waited until the light is good, but sun in May is weak at best. She’s stripped to the waist, chilled, and alone but for her camera. She’s left her husband, her parents, and her sisters behind in Germany. She is there, in a foreign city, because she has no choice. This is where she first saw Cézanne, Gauguin. Where the ancient art of the Louvre—Egyptian, Etruscan, Roman—waits for her every day. The Old Masters are there, too, of course. And in the galleries, so much that’s new. Something entirely fresh is happening in art; she must be part of it.
She’s painted nudes for years, German peasants, even old women and young girls, from the village of Worpswede. Here in Paris, it’s not so easy. Models are a professional lot. They must be paid—in francs, not in trade or promises—and, just now, she has no money.
But what luck, she has herself with her. She smiles and adjusts the light, the lens, and steps back. She varies the tilt of her head, takes one photo with hands to necklace, another with them resting across the flat plane of her stomach. She plucks small flowers from a jar on her bedside table, the first buds of spring, and holds them before her as she stares into the camera.
She develops the film, likes what she sees.
As soon as she wakes each morning, she paints. Paints all day while the light lasts. She forgets to eat. The work is enough; it sustains her. Though she grows thinner, in paint she grows fuller. She gives herself a wholesome round belly, big with promise. She is as full of potential as a bud in spring.
When she’s done, she steps back. She knows she’s becoming something at last. Never again will she apologize when saying she is a painter.
She signs this self-portrait P. B. Though she notes the day as her fifth anniversary (or sixth wedding day) of marriage to Otto Modersohn, that’s done now. She uses only the initials of her maiden name: Paula Becker. I made this.
A friend from home, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, stops by soon after, catching sight of the new work. He eyes his friend’s swollen belly on canvas with concern. Rilke believes art must trump life. A child would be a disaster.
He should relax. Paula Becker is not pregnant.
* * * * *
Modersohn-Becker painted the first female nude self-portrait in Western history. It is true that Artemisia Gentileschi likely used her own body as the model for her Old Testament heroine in Susanna and the Elders, but that’s not the same thing. In Self-Portrait, Age 30, Modersohn-Becker is her own heroine. She is artist, subject, object, metaphor, nature, and actor.
Compare the not-pregnant, but pregnant-looking artist, here, to her flourishing forebearers in paint: Botticelli’s famous curving Venus in La Primavera, for example. The goddess is not with child, but is part of a (nearly) baffling allegory pertaining to the fertility of all creation. Or consider the female half of The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan van Eyck. On seeing it (if you have not, trust me), the inevitable first question is, “Why is the bride pregnant?” She’s not. Round-bellied women, believe it or not, were considered the most beautiful.
Though revolutionary, Modersohn-Becker is more than aware of the past. She is Botticelli and his Venus, Jan and his full-bellied bride, in a cold Parisian garret in spring, procreative as all hell.
By the time Modersohn-Becker painted her first nude self-portrait at the age of thirty (she went on to do six more), she’d been grappling seriously with art for a good decade, ambitious from the start.
When I was twenty-two, I read this, written by the artist in 1897 when she was my same age: “I walk along the boulevards and crowds of people pass by and something inside me cries out, ‘The beauty I have before me, none, none, none of you have.’” By the time I read those words, I was in love with New York and in love with the idea of writing, though I’d done little outside the academic.
In a course on German Expressionism, our professor, Gert Schiff, had shown one of Modersohn-Becker’s nude self-portraits and mentioned he’d put a volume of her translated letters and journals on the “class hold” shelf in the library. At the break, I raced upstairs, found the book, and moved it to “my” chair in a study room. Books on class hold could not be checked out.
I spent the next week at my boyfriend’s place on the Upper East Side so I could get to school early and get dibs on the book. Mornings I waited on the cold sidewalk for the building to open, vainly warming my palms on cardboard to-go cups of too-milky tea. Once in my chair upstairs, I devoured Modersohn-Becker’s words, wanting to know, in order to re-create, her recipe for making oneself an artist.
* * * * *
It was her diaries and letters, not her paintings, that first made Modersohn-Becker famous. Rilke, her close friend, refused to act as editor and begged his own publisher not to release them: “For where do they let us learn that this accommodating creature, who met the demands of family communication so compliantly and cooperatively, would, later, seized by the passion of her task, renouncing all else, shoulder loneliness and poverty?”
Where else but in the paintings themselves?
Though the writings don’t always pertain directly to her art, I’m so glad they were revealed. They give us the backstory, and all the conflicted emotion behind that story.
Modersohn-Becker’s father (named—unfortunate in our Harry Potter age—Woldemar) had insisted she train as a governess. There’d be no hinging hopes on marriage, much less the utter fantasy of art. But his driven daughter snuck in art training when and where she could. She never had her father’s blessing (“I don’t believe you will be a divinely inspired artist of the first rank—it would have shown in you well before this”), but then neither did Cézanne.
On her own, Modersohn-Becker discovered the artists’ colony of Worpswede near her hometown. It had been founded in 1889 by two art students, Fritz Mackensen and Otto Modersohn, as part of an embrace of a naturalist movement romantically fixated on nature and the ennobling qualities of shoveling ox dung and burning peat.
It was in Mackensen’s drawing class for his female students that Paula Becker met the sculptor Clara Westhoff in 1899. The young artists became intimate friends, working together, dreaming, talking, planning. They were soon joined by the poet Rilke, who seemed a little in love with them both (“I am with you. Am gratefully with you both, / Who are as sisters to my soul.”). But it was Clara he married.
In Modersohn-Becker’s Portrait of Clara Rilke-Westhoff, painted in 1905, just a year before her flight to Paris and breakthrough self-portrait, she depicts her friend all in white, a dramatic contrast to her dark hair and the red rose she holds to her chest. The rose was Rilke’s flower, used often in his poems. His wife looks out of the picture to her left, her face a mask of forbearance and longing.
The painting illustrates how crucial ancient art was to Modersohn-Becker’s burgeoning late style. Her figures are simplified, monumental, and timeless. But they also demonstrate her grasp of Modernism’s penetrating psychology, its flatness and powerful form married to mysterious symbol.
Becker often used flowers in her portraits of women, archetypes of nature, of beauty, of femininity, but also mysterious in the way they are often held up for the viewer, a secret sign we sort of understand, the way we comprehend things in dreams.
* * * * *
Modersohn-Becker’s visits to Paris began on January 1, 1900. In the first six months, she wrote effusive letters back to Worpswede, entreating others to come experience the transformative new art there. Several Worpswede artists came, including Otto Modersohn, eleven years her senior and one of the colony’s founders. His sick wife, left abed at home, died three days after he arrived. Three months later, he and Paula Becker were engaged.
Otto Modersohn is sometimes painted as the bad guy in the story of his artist wife, but he loved and admired her. She had a studio outside their home in Worpswede (as did he), painting from nine in the morning until seven at night, with a two-hour break midday for family lunch, prepared by a cook. She had more support than most women artists, of any era. But even with that and with yearly visits to Paris, she struggled. A rural art colony, Worpswede looked backward while Modersohn-Becker saw the future. “She is understood by no one,” wrote her husband, who tried to understand.
While working on her Portrait of Clara Rilke-Westhoff, Modersohn-Becker wrote her mother, “That one is so terribly stuck when one is married is rather hard.” Rilke-Westhoff herself later wrote, “Paula threw one piece of peat on the other through a little squeaking door in the kiln, as one tear after another rolled down her cheek while she explained to me how very important it was for her to be out ‘in the world’ again, to go back to Paris again.
“‘When I think of it, the world’—she said.”
In early 1906, just days after Otto’s birthday, Modersohn-Becker fled Worpswede, intending never to return.
* * * * *
In letters from Paris she begged Otto not to try to win her back. At the same time, she asked for money. As a married woman, she had none of her own.
Practical necessities were a constant problem—food, heat, model’s fees—but still, her art flourished. After only a few months in Paris, she broke through to a powerful new style. Shortly after painting the life-size Reclining Mother and Child II she wrote her sister Milly, ecstatically, “I am becoming something—I am living the most intensely happy period of my life.” Then she asked Milly to send money.
Traditionally, a reclining nude is a come-hither sign of sexual availability, whether cloaked in mythology (Titian’s Venus of Urbino, say) or Orientalizing romanticism (Ingres’s Grande Odalisque) or straight-up prostitution (Manet’s Olympia). In these and hundreds (thousands?) of similar works, a nude woman stares undefended at the viewer, welcoming his gaze. It is impossible to presume the viewer is anything but a man; it is presumed for us.
But in her Reclining Mother and Child, Modersohn-Becker broke with three thousand years of convention. Her mother and child face each other, oblivious to any viewer. They do offer sensuality, but it’s one of food and touch and warmth and animal love. For each other.
Equally groundbreaking, Modersohn-Becker does not fear a woman’s body or what it’s made for. Her monumental mother reclines with breasts, navel, and pubic hair exposed. Her hairstyle and features are undifferentiated, masklike, in imitation of ancient or non-Western sources. She is as timeless as the Venus of Willendorf, which is about how far you have to go back—the Paleolithic—to find a frank and frankly unsexy pubic view.
In addition, the artist has entirely reimagined the nursing mother and child. Not as Virgin suckling a holy (male) child, or as earthy peasant wearily opening her blouse, but as Woman, Mother, Nude offering sustenance and love, and getting those in return from a child whose sex we do not know.
Modersohn-Becker’s nude mothers are powerful and protean, also natural. As artists are. As this artist and woman is.
Critics have sometimes sensed a conservative streak in Modersohn-Becker’s mother and child paintings, an obsession with womanhood’s being bound up in motherhood. But Modersohn-Becker’s vision has a feminist core. She wants it all: art and child.
We don’t know whether the artist was pregnant when she made Reclining Mother and Child II, but she likely was. If not quite yet, then soon.
* * * * *
I remember the very moment I saw Modersohn-Becker’s work for the first time, sitting near the front of the Institute’s lecture space, in the mansion’s former ballroom. Professor Schiff was a few feet away, peering into his notes at the lectern. He’d fought on the German side in World War II, was captured by the French, and then came to New York, where he lived among the bohemians at the Hotel Chelsea. A few years ago I read this by Patti Smith in her memoir Just Kids, from when she lived there: “Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso.” I smiled, picturing Schiff just as he was at the lectern twenty years later, hunched over a text on art, rumpled, wry, impassioned.
A slide of Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace popped up, many feet high beside him, the crystal chandeliers and mirrored gilt walls of the room disappearing behind a woman’s pale torso. Schiff glanced up, looked startled, then gave a sigh—of what? Recognition? Admiration? I followed his gaze. An ample nude seen from the waist up, body turned toward us, her eyes cast somewhere to our right. She stands before a sky-blue background filled with vines and flowers. She wears an amber necklace—warm gold against peach skin—and in her pulled-back hair are three small pink flowers. She holds two similar flowers against her chest, the one in her left hand turned upward between her breasts.
“They are,” Schiff said beside her, “nearly the same color and shape as her areolas.” His German accent slipped softly on the s’s.
It looks so clinical written down, but sounded beautiful to me then. Unlike every other nude we’d seen in the course, she was sensual but not sexual, brimming with health and strength. So unlike her Nordic and Germanic peers, slashing, sultry nudes as she-wolves and sex objects, devourers and meat.
I was stunned by the painting, trying to take notes, but not wanting to look away. When Schiff said it was a self-portrait, I almost dropped my pen. When he said that here, this artist was pregnant, I did. Somehow, I hadn’t known such a thing was possible. I didn’t know you could have a child and make great art, I really didn’t. Maybe not entirely a surprise that I didn’t know. Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace is the first pregnant nude self-portrait in history.
Years later, when I was teaching a yearlong Survey of Modern Art course at Portland State, I lingered on Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace with my students, in a lecture hall ten times the size of the old mansion ballroom where I’d first encountered it. Like Schiff, I pointed out the small flowers and the artist’s nipples and how she was, like nature, lovely, generative, eternal. I mentioned the child inside her, and the work without. I glowed at the lectern with admiration for such a woman.
When grading finals, where the painting had been one of the slide IDs, more than one student parroted back what I’d said about it, then added comments about the nipples and flowers like, “Which is weird,” or “I still don’t get why anyone would do that,” or “Maybe being pregnant made her act strange.” I went back and made a small stack of the exams with such comments. They were all male.
* * * * *
Otto Modersohn showed up in Paris unannounced, just a week after his estranged wife had completed her Self-Portrait, Age 30, 6th Wedding Day, signed with just the initials of her maiden name. She was painting Rilke’s portrait—another model she didn’t have to pay for, like herself—when Otto burst in.
In the beginning she resisted his entreaties, but then, finally, she took him back. Who knows why? Money? Loneliness? Love for him?
They lived together in Paris through the summer before moving back to Worpswede. Modersohn-Becker had by then created a handful of revolutionary nudes, including her two self-portraits and the monumental Reclining Mother and Child. And she was well along in her first pregnancy.
Before leaving France that fall, she could have seen exhibitions by Rousseau, who was her neighbor, as well as Courbet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rodin, Derain, and Matisse. She might have seen the latter’s incendiary Blue Nude just as she was packing up her own revolutionary nudes for her return to a small German art colony still fixated on the previous century. But she was untroubled, certain of her breakthrough.
She did write a chilling letter to her sister Milly in November: “I look at it this way: if the good Lord allows me to create something beautiful once more, I’ll be happy and content just as long as I have a place where I can work in peace, and I will be thankful for what part of love comes my way. As long as one stays healthy, and doesn’t die young.” Possibly no surprise that a woman coming near to giving birth in that era might think of death.
* * * * *
Later that same month, Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde. Photographs show a beaming mother and screaming baby, both healthy and thriving.
The mother and artist kept telling visitors: “You should see her in the nude!”
As was common practice, the new mother was put on two weeks of complete bed rest. After one week, she complained of leg pains. After two, she was allowed up. She braided her hair, weaving roses in it, and asked for her daughter. Suddenly she was in pain. She raised one leg, then collapsed. Her last words: What a pity.
Sarah Lemon has momentarily put down her motorcycle to talk to us about the journey that brought her to write her debut novel: Done Dirt Cheap.
Take it away Sarah!
Writing at times feels like a superpower, unwieldy in my hands, not something I’m fully in control of, but a power that lets me raise my fingers and pull fragments of my world together into something new and beautiful. I can point to shards of glinting glass in the whole and talk about how that piece came to be. Done Dirt Cheap came from many places in my life and history. But for today, I want to tell you how it almost never happened.
There’s an unspoken rule in Art: Don’t talk about how much you suck, your fear, or how tenuous it feels. Unless it’s in a self-deprecating show of humility as someone is handing you the Pulitzer.
It’s part of success—the sheen of it, like a rainbow slick of oil on water.
But I’m not always great with rules and clear water is better than oil.
Done Dirt Cheap only happened because of a lesson I had learned a long time ago, on the back of a monster dirt-bike, on which I couldn’t touch the ground even when I pointed my toes.
I was fourteen, living in a part of the world that was only valuable for its minerals. My landscape had been stripped, clawed at, dug under and left behind as garbage. Our groundwater was tainted. Our basements full of radiation. Our streams clogged with weird foams and slick spools of dark muck. We had dug too deep and a darkness hung over everything.
In the strip mines, I found a place I could breathe. In those raped and forgotten places I could string together forty or more miles of new life. The landscape would rise and fight with me, and together we wouldn’t be forgotten girl and forgotten land, but two things who were still alive and able to grasp at our fate. It brutalised me to make me. I was in every way, an average, bookish, fourteen-year-old girl with a fear so strong it came out as teeth. But out in the mines, I was free of that skin. I could fly. I could see a line and fight my way to the end. I could fall, pitch over the handlebars, run my bike up a tree, flip end over end and still stand, pick up the bike, and begin again. Just writing this, fifteen years later, I can still feel the pump in my arms from wrestling the dirt-bike on the thin threads of trails that wound around deep, sentient holes of green water, cone mountains of slag and silt, and grated air shafts leading into the abyss.
“Treskow” was a route we took often—named after the tiny old mining town it began in. We rode through the woods, along an old railroad bed with no tracks, before dropping down a slippery rock covered mountain into an uninhabited valley. I would drag my back brake the whole way down, my teeth chattering from the rocks. But the real challenge was at the end of the mud-holed valley. We always stopped and craned our necks at the steep switchback of the mountain ahead. It made me sick to look at it, every time. By that point, there was no way to get home and no way to give up. I wanted to be there, but hadn’t known how terrifying it was going to be. Every time.
When I started Done Dirt Cheap, that’s where I was – at the bottom of a giant switchback, too far from home and looking up at the power lines humming between transformers while everyone else sped ahead of me.
In those tenuous moments where you are balancing on the edge of failure, the natural desire is to hold back. You think “Oh I’ll go slow and easy and pick my way up.” But in slippy slag and miles of steep switchbacks, you simply will run out of power. Each switchback has to be hit hard and powered through, or you’ll never make it to the top. There is no easing through the terrain. Manoeuvre swiftly or you’ll pitch over the edge. So, with this book, I was miles deep into publishing terrain. I had failed a lot. I had dragged my back brake down the mountain and even though, yes, I was out there, I was at the back of the crowd, wishing I was at home. Uncertain I could actually do this.
Looking ahead, I wanted nothing more than to go slow and safe. Something sure. But I had been here before. I knew what held me back was fear. This was the moment in riding where you have to pin back that throttle and ride with your jaw tight and your stomach in your throat.
So, I did.
Lord, I did.
And just like in riding, I prayed and held on and hoped for the best. With Done Dirt Cheap, I somehow popped over the top of that switchback with the valley below me and the sky above. I’m further than I ever expected to be.
Further, but with miles to go. I know the trail still—how it winds over the ridge before dropping down again and then taking me through another technical mountain crossing. I’m leaning over the gas tank, holding the throttle back. The wind is whipping my hair and I taste elation, panic, and dust in my mouth. All I can do is hope the trail keeps up with me, and I keep up with the trail.
Ride or die. Write or die.
P.S. Please buy my book.
Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Lemon is on sale 7th March 2017. Order your copy here.
strawberries (from about 4 cups/ 580 g strawberries)
3 tablespoons sugar, divided
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon, plus more for garnish
11/4 cups (155 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
3 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup (180 ml) whole milk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Unsalted butter or canola oil, for the pan
These puffy pancakes are a fixture on the brunch menu at Porsena, the Manhattan restaurant run by Sara Jenkins (Vol. 14: Prosciutto di Parma). Where normal pancake batter would get weighed down by ricotta cheese, here, beating the egg yolks and whites separately – as you would in a soufflé – makes the batter puff and rise as it cooks, yielding a very fluffy pancake with an extra-crisp exterior. Lemon – juiced into the batter and zested throughout – lightens these fluffy pancakes even further.
Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth and set it over a small bowl. Add the ricotta and let it drain for 15 minutes; set aside.
In a small bowl, toss the strawberries with 1 tablespoon of sugar and the lemon juice. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 tablespoon of sugar, the baking powder and salt.
In a separate medium bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest and vanilla and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Whisk in the flour mixture until a smooth batter forms.
Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment or bowl and handheld mixer, beat the egg whites and the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar at low speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium high and beat the egg whites and sugar until stiff and glossy. Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.
Heat a cast-iron griddleor large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add a spoonful of butter and heat until the foaming subsides. Working in batches, drop 1/3 cup (75 ml) of pancake batter onto the hot griddle and cook over medium heat until the tops of the pancakes are bubbling and slightly dry and their bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip the pancakes over and cook through until browned on the other side, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the pancakes to a platter and repeat with the remaining batter.
Spoon the strawberries and their juices over the top of the pancakes, zest some lemon over the top and serve.
and VOILÁ pancakes worthy of the day!
Share pictures of your pancake-masterpieces with us, we are on Twitter and Instagram @abramschronicle.
Open-up a discussion about feelings with your little reader with the help of Madalena Moniz’s gorgeous alphabet of emotions.
Beautifully illustrated by Madalena Moniz’s subtle watercolours, Today I Feel… follows a child through a whole range of emotions, from adored to curious to strong. Not all of the emotions are positive and not all of them are simple, but they are all honest and worthy of discussion with a young child.
2016 was a tough year and 2017 is set to be full of it’s own challenges: with New Years Resolutions feeling like a distant memory, we are all in need of a little guidance for how to stay positive. The Ups and Downs Journal is the perfect place to let go of the bad and focus on the good.
Give it a go today; jot down your answers to the following questions and feel your worries ebb out onto the page.
First the downs:
This rained on my parade: _______________________________________________
I view this as a problem/challenge, because…__________________________
The Future looks: _________________________________________________________
Would I rather be elsewhere right now? yes/no
If yes, where and why? __________________________________________________
The most annoying person I talked to: ________________________________
The biggest disappointment of the day: _______________________________
Now the Ups:
This was quite good: ____________________________________________________
This unfortunately less so:_______________________________________________ , but it doesn’t matter.
Did I reward myself? yes/no
If yes, how and for what?_______________________________________________
If no, why not? __________________________________________________________
This made me laugh: __________________________________________________
I enjoyed this: __________________________________________________________
This day was my friend because ______________________________________
My resolution for tomorrow: _________________________________________
With space to record the day’s low points followed by the day’s highlights, this journal encourages you to acknowledge the bad, let it go and embrace the good!