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Paula Modersohn-Becker inspired me to defy expectations

How the artist’s pioneering and courageous work inspired Nina Relf’s own art career and outlook on life

My artist inspiration is a series that shares stories of how artists from the past to present day have inspired different people in different ways.

The year was 2016 and I was on a family trip to Bremen, Germany. We stumbled across the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, not realising that it was the first gallery in the world dedicated to a woman artist. I was completely taken aback by the work I saw. The artist painted the ‘female’ body and applied paint in a way that was so unique and new to me. I was full of admiration, but simultaneously frustrated that this was the first time I had heard of the artist.

Aged 18 and having just completed the first term of my degree in Fine Art and Art History, I look back at this period as a blur of excitement and nervousness. While university was everything that I had wanted and a chance to study what I loved, I initially found it hard. I felt like a shy girl on her first day of school all over again. After living my whole life in a small village, I was suddenly moving six hours away on my own.

I really resonated with Modersohn-Becker’s story. She grew up in the countryside too, and these rural, tranquil landscapes become prevalent in her paintings. Born in Worpswede, Northern Germany, in 1876, she began to paint at the age of 16. The remote village had an established artist’s colony – a lively community of artists who inspired one another and held group exhibitions. However, like me, she was determined to travel elsewhere and broaden her experience.

Modersohn-Becker attended the London and Berlin schools of Art, and studied the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso in Paris. Her move from the rural countryside to these busy and thriving cities echoed how I felt in my new surroundings. In her letters, the feeling of being a tiny part of a huge city was something that struck me. Whilst she wrote to family and friends, I constantly called my mum to tell her everything. Like her, I expressed my feelings through writing, so started to create blog posts to document these.

“...seeing Modersohn-Becker demonstrate the importance of not waiting for the approval of anyone else, I’ve been inspired to showcase my art.“

Paris inspired her to experiment with colour and Expressionism. But she also saw in the works of these artists an overtly sexual and objectified depiction of women and their bodies. This was largely instrumental in her decision to turn to herself and her body for her paintings. On entering my new studio in Plymouth, I felt conflicted about what I wanted to create. Little did I know that, by the end of my first year, I would be painting self-portraits too.

Self-Portrait, aged 30, 6th Wedding conveys the artist’s independence. The concept of painting a nude self-portrait in such a raw and unfiltered way was ground-breaking at the time. I was so inspired that I brought a poster of this and stuck it to the wall in my room at university. The placement of her arms suggests pregnancy, but she was not pregnant. I see this as her acknowledging the expectation for her to become a mother and she defied this expectation to pursue a career in art instead.

She was also brave to introduce a type of painting that had not been produced before – a ‘female’ nude self-portrait. I’ve felt afraid to display my work, fearing the opinions of others, but seeing Modersohn-Becker demonstrate the importance of not waiting for the approval of anyone else, I’ve been inspired to showcase my art.

Her urge to create outweighed the need to adhere to societies’ expectations. Signing the self-portrait ‘PB’, it was painted in response to the separation from husband Otto Modersohn, a landscape painter. Now working alone in her studio in Paris, she wrote to best friend Rainer Maria Rilke: “and now, I don’t even know how I should sign my name. I’m not Modersohn, but I’m no longer Paula Becker anymore either.” Although I was only 18 years old, I could relate the scenario of working in a new studio and struggling to define the sort of artist I wanted to be.

”I wanted to highlight how women artists had been side-lined throughout art history, so in Modersohn-Becker style, I modelled for myself.”

The presentation of the body in art is a topic I explored throughout my whole degree and continues to fascinate me. I found the way that Modersohn-Becker portrayed the ‘female’ body the most realistic of all. In Reclining Mother and Child Nude, a woman and her baby lie bare on white sheets. There is no drapery concealing the figures, no elongated and idealised limbs, no flawless skin perfected to every inch. It is a humble and honest image.

Modersohn-Becker was the innovator behind this entirely new concept – painting women from a woman’s perspective. The genre was exclusive to women, a way of expressing their experiences and this inspired my own self-portraits. I wanted to highlight how women artists had been side-lined throughout art history, so in Modersohn-Becker style, I modelled for myself.

However, in the 20th century, being a mother and being an artist were two incompatible roles. In November 1907, just 19 days after giving birth, Modersohn-Becker died aged just 31. This narrative provides a tragic commentary on the irreconcilability of being both an artist and a mother. When I learnt about Modersohn-Becker, I was just beginning to pursue a career in art. I felt extremely lucky to have been encouraged to do this. Unfortunately, the situation could not have been more different for Modersohn-Becker and this was something I had taken for granted before.

Although I was working in a studio where the majority of my fellow students were women, I still felt the need to exceed the expectations of a women artist in a still very male-dominated profession. It was my duty to use the voice I had, to both give women artists like Modersohn-Becker the recognition they deserved, and to ensure opportunities for women artists improve. In a society where women were encouraged to stay at home, Paula Modersohn-Becker courageously picked up a paint brush instead and paved the way for more women artists, like me, in the process.

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