Worpswede's transition from rugged moorland to a place of art

One hundred years ago, Worpswede was a tiny settlement huddled around a sand dune surrounded by an almost unpenetrable moor, isolated and virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

Its people were miserably poor, living in reed-decked huts and hacking out an existence by gathering peat from the "Devil's Moor." The peat was loaded onto long, narrow boats powered by black sails, guided through a network of canals, and sold in Bremen 15 miles to the south.

Little did these peat farmers suspect that their world was about to change.

In 1889 five artists moved to Worpswede, forming an artists' colony. Considering themselves revolutionaries, they turned their backs on traditional art academies and on the large, grimy cities of the newly born Machine Age. "Back to nature!" was their cry, back to the roots of man's existence, to the life of simplicity and the primitive. Worpswede became their paradise.

Especially intriguing to the artists was northern Germany's landscape. It was a wasteland of emptiness, of dark moor, floods and swamps stretching to meet the sky, of plains broken by canals and clusters of birch, pine, and old willows. It was a land where huge clouds thundered across the sky. It was a land of rich colors: the dark brown and black of the moor, startling blues of the sky, and violent purple of heather.

By using strong colors and large forms, the painters were able to portray not only the reality of the landscape -- the reed huts, the floods, and the solitary , bent birch trees -- but also the melancholy atmosphere of the wide moor.

Although Worpswede art was initially called "ugly" by the critics, the artists became a smashing success at a showing in Munich in 1985, when the unknown beginners suddenly found themselves in the art spotlight. Their work sold to well-known museums and they were invited to show their work in Paris, Brussels, Prague, and St. Louis.

Suddenly the area became a mecca for young artists wishing to work under the colony's masters. Among these newcomers was a young girl named Paula Becker.

Falling in love with Worpswede the instant she saw it, young Paula would often gather her paints and sketch materials, a book of Goethe's poems, and her lunch into a backpack and wander about the moor.From the beginning she made an effort to meet the farmers and learn their names. Their poverty deeply afected her. Rather than paint landscapes, Paula concentrated on people, faces, and still life. She tried to capture a bit of the human soul in her work.

But the life of a female artist at the turn of the century was not an easy one. For most men of the time, including her colleagues, one of whom she married, women were women first and only then artists. Her parents urged her to become a teacher rather than an artist. After her paintings were razed at a showing in Bremen, Paula rarely showed her work but continued to work with even more intensity, taking trips to Paris, where she was influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

At the age of 31, Paula Becker-Modersohn passed on. Only after that was her artistic meaning recognized. Acknowledged as having given impulse to German expressionism, she is today celebrated as the most talented of the early artists in Worpswede.

The artists' colony there lives on. Of the 8,000 people living in or around Worpswede today, 50 are artists.

"We have painters, graphic artists, musicians, writers," Hanns Koch of the Worpswede Tourist Office said. "Many others are craftsmen, working with wood, clay, or glass. Altogether about 300 people make their living from art."

Worpswede, about 45 minutes from the heart of Bremen at a round-trip bus price of about $4, boasts 15 galleries, an art museum, and a peat-boat museum. Art courses are offered to children and adults in painting, ceramics, and drawing. Tourists can rent horses or bicycles or take rides in horsedrawn carriages over the Devil's Moor.

Over the past century the landscape around the area has changed. True, old farmhouses still sink down under their burden of thick, reed-thatched roofs. Birch trees and thousands of canals and ditches still bisect wide plains, and huge clouds still roll across the sky. But gone are the peat farmers, their peat boats, and their poverty. Much of the moor has been won over to farmland. Without the early Worpswede artists, a way of life and its people would have vanished unsung.

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