Last summer, Cindy Sherman unexpectedly made her Instagram page public. In between shots taken at art museums and photos of the quiet odds and ends of her life was a trove of new self-portraits. These had the conventions of selfies — closely cropped images of Sherman’s face, the gaze directed at the camera or just beyond — but something was off. The portraits were stretched in size and processed by face-changing filters, resulting in creepy, colorful, and distorted photographs that pointed playfully at Instagram culture.
Cindy Sherman and artists like Catherine Opie, Eleanor Antin, and Hannah Wilke have made the self-portrait a cornerstone of feminist art. The allure of the genre lies in its assertion of control: when art museums are still lined with images of female figures painted by the invisible hands of a male artist, there is something compelling about a self-portrait’s statement of autonomy.
There are many precedents for Sherman’s and Opie’s work — like that of German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. A contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, Modersohn-Becker is credited with painting not only the first female nude self-portrait in Western art but also the first pregnant nude self-portrait. When she died in 1907 at age 31 from a pulmonary embolism, a complication of childbirth, she left behind more than 700 paintings, many that prefigured the innovations of Cubism and Modernism. And yet her work is little known outside of art-history classrooms and her native Germany.
Modersohn-Becker is the subject of a new biography, Being Here Is Everything, written by the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq, translated beautifully by Penny Hueston, and released in the United States last September by Semiotext(e). The book builds on the first English monograph of her work, written by the art historian Diane Radycki in 2012. Together, Radycki and Darrieussecq contend that Paula Modersohn-Becker deserves recognition for laying the groundwork for twentieth-century feminist art.
Born in Bremen in 1876, Modersohn-Becker received money from her uncle in her late teens and moved to an artists’ colony in West Germany called Worpswede. At this swampy nineteenth-century Marfa, she met the men and women who would become most important to her: Clara Westhoff, the sculptor and Paula’s best friend; Otto Modersohn, the painter of gloomy landscapes and her future husband; and Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet, husband to Clara, and one of Paula’s most intimate pen pals. These three artists would be the guiding forces of her creative and personal lives, sharing her enthusiasm for painters like van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne and serving as the recipients of and responders to her many carefully crafted letters.
The recurring note in Modersohn-Becker’s life was her unromantic devotion to her work: she resented her domestic responsibilities because they were dull and distracted from her painting. In protest, she escaped to Paris, where she lived alone for month-long stints before and during her marriage. It was also rumored that she resisted sleeping with Otto for the first five years they were together, either anxious about the impact of childbirth on her work or the result of Otto’s possible impotence. (For the record, Darrieussecq is uninterested in this kind of gossip: “Their marriages consummated or not, all these people are dead,” she writes. “When I hear the word ‘consummated,’ I think of soup … I’d rather look at Paula’s paintings.”)
Paula is easy to sentimentalize. In her letters, collected by her mother after her death and published to become a best-seller in Germany, the charms of her prose are evident: she is clever but guileless, a young girl in an innocent Europe, a Germany before its two major wars. “These letters are how most people got to know her,” Radycki explains in an interview with The New Yorker. “They expected the paintings to be as sweet as the letters, but they found them to be edgier and didn’t exactly know what to do with that aspect of her. That’s where she always fell between the cracks.”