Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order)

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.

The following is an extract from Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order):

PAULA MODERSOHN-BECKER
© 2017 by Lisa Congdon.

PAULA MODERSOHN-BECKER


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.

Text copyright © 2017 by Bridget Quinn.


 Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) is on sale 7th March 2017, order your copy today.

Broad Strokes


1. The Guardian 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2013/may/24/women-art-great-artists-men

2. Guerrilla Girls: https://www.timeout.com/london/blog/how-sexist-is-the-art-world-really-frickin-sexist-actually-111016

3. ARTnews: http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/26/taking-the-measure-of-sexism-facts-figures-and-fixes/

Leave a Reply