She met life head-on

If anyone ever deserved a break it was Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), and if anyone ever failed to get one, it was she. Although blessed with a powerful talent, a fertile, highly original imagination, and the courage to follow the dictates of her creative conscience wherever they might lead, she yet spent the greater portion of her short life trying to free herself from the rigid grip of turn-of-the-century conventions regarding women and artists.

It might not have been so bad had those who tried to keep her in check been her artistic equals, or if they had fully understood what she was trying to do. But that was not the case. Even her husband, the painter Otto Modersohn, failed to realize precisely what she was up to, and when her name did finally become wellknown in Germany a decade or so after her death, it was for her published journals and letters, not for her art.

She frequently worked in isolation, shielding herself as much as possible from the reactions of a society not yet ready for what she was producing. Not even her marriage gave her the support she needed. She felt increasingly cramped and intimidated by the secondary role - even as artist - expected of her as a wife, and by her husband's well-intentioned but generally irrelevant criticism of her work.

By 1903 she could stand it no longer and fled to Paris, where she worked a few months before returning to Germany. The situation had only worsened, however , and she went to Paris two more times, in 1905 and 1906 - the last time, she thought, for good.

Her husband begged her for a reconciliation, and when she finally agreed, he joined her in Paris. Things apparently improved between them, for by the time both returned home in the spring of 1907, Paula was pregnant. In November of that year she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, but she herself survived that birth by only 20 days.

Not a very pretty tale, and yet this is the same person who wrote in 1900 when she was only 24, ''I know I shall not live very long. But I wonder, is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful because it lasts longer? And my life is a celebration, a short, intense celebration. My powers of perception are becoming finer, as if I were supposed to absorb everything in the few years that are still to be offered me, everything. ... And if I can paint three good pictures, then I shall go gladly, with flowers in my hands and in my hair.''

Well, she did paint her ''three good pictures'' - and quite a few more, and she also managed to leave behind many drawings and a handful of excellent prints. It took several decades, however, for the world to realize just how special she had been, and even then her name was usually only mentioned as an afterthought whenever the major German Expressionists were discussed.

Gunter Busch, director of the Kunsthalle in Bremen, has helped put her in proper historical perspective. ''Modersohn-Becker,'' he writes, ''was the first woman artist to make an independent and significant contribution to the art of this century. More important, she was the first in her country to consciously perceive a connection between her work and the art of neighboring lands (France, in particular) and, in so doing, to formulate an international aesthetic style. The forceful originality of her formal solutions clearly establishes her as a pioneer and innovator who paved the way for modern art in Europe.''

Quite an accomplishment - especially in the light of all she had to overcome. And yet, I wonder what her response would be to what she helped bring into being were she to return to earth today. Would she be interested in the more extreme forms of Expressionism, in the works of Nolde, Soutine, Beckmann, and Pollock? Having been an Expressionist herself, would she be sympathetic to the current Neo-Expressionist canvases of such West German, Italian, and American artists as Fetting, Kiefer, Cucchi, or Schnabel?

It's difficult to say, but one thing does seem certain: If she felt the work was honest and serious, and placed human feelings and realities above purely formal or sensational ones, it would stand a good chance with her no matter how wild and woolly it might at first appear.

On the other hand, I suspect she would feel we have given too much credit for modernism's greatness to its formal heroes, and not enough to those artists whose primary focus was on human passion and emotion. And I further suspect she would insist we keep these more ''emotional'' creators respectfully in mind, especially in a time such as ours when life's confusions and contradictions make the idea of an art of pure form all the more tempting and attractive.

Modersohn-Becker was not a formal purist, and I doubt very much she would look too favorably on that kind of art today. Her approach to painting was more empathic and confrontational. Her work met life head-on, and found its identity and made its point by fusing feeling and form, the starkly actual and the carefully calculated, into as perfect and effective a pictorial image as possible.

She wanted to present life whole, and saw to it that her paintings existed as something more than mere extensions of a dead or narrow tradition, or as the actualizations on paper or canvas of a formal idea. The fact that they were so effective and innovative is proof of the truth, quality, and integrity of her creative vision. And the fact that they remain so challenging and moving is all the evidence we need of her courage and humanity.

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