Dhe most comprehensive and best artist exhibitions can often be recognized by the lacony of their titles: “Paula Modersohn-Becker” is the succinct name of the show opening today in the Frankfurt Schirn, and yet with one hundred and sixteen painted and graphic works it encompasses almost all of the highlights of her oeuvre. Although the vita of the painter, who died of an embolism in 1907 at the age of only thirty-one, is quickly told – a commute between Paris and the hate-loving artists’ colony of Worpswede – one should take all the more time for her afterlife and the consequences of her art for modernity to enjoy the new aesthetics of the paintings hung on bold colors.
Ingrid Pfeiffer, as curator of the show, characterizes Modersohn-Becker above all as “timeless, direct, strange” – and means all three terms positively. Completely undeterred, although she sells as little as Van Gogh, who shimmers through in some pictures, especially in the impasto reliefs of her still lifes, the Dresden daughter of a noblewoman and a building inspector goes her way. Completely bypassing the art market of her time, she arrives at an individual modernity that, although hardly noticed during her lifetime, was admired all the more after her death. She would probably hardly have been interested in even fame that had come in time.
She denies the main task of the portrait
But she is one of the main representatives of the avant-garde because, like any other good futuristic movement, she reaches far back into the cultural treasure chest: Malevich developed – eight years after her death – his black square made of semi-abstract icons, Duchamp his “Big Glass “From the medieval cult of relics – and Modersohn-Becker several unique features of their portraits from modern interpretations of the nudes of Cranach, Titian or Holbein, but especially from the two thousand year old Fayyum portraits of ancient Egypt. Paula’s sister Herma reports that the artist has “in recent years adorned her tiny dining room at head height with a frieze of Egyptian tomb portraits”.
The enthusiastic adoption of several form features of these pictures of the dead may also be the cause of the alienation of many people with Modersohn-Becker’s often brittle portraits, which she also preferred to paint in her favorite color, dull-dry tempera: while most love their landscapes, they find it Self-portraits and likenesses of their circle of friends and some overgrown or enchanted children (such as the “half-length portrait of a girl with a wreath and a daisy in her hands” with its crater-deep gray eye sockets) were less popular with many, possibly because of their subcutaneous proximity to death. In the premodern “Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch” from 1906, for example, she flattens her face and translates Fayyum portraits into modernity with the strongly stylized, dark-sized almond eyes and the gray crescent-shaped eyebrows, as these are flat and pale due to their leveling wax caustic technique works.
The serial and essential
Modersohn-Becker’s famous Bremen “Self-Portrait on the 6th Wedding Anniversary, May 25, 1906” as an apparently pregnant woman even goes a decisive step further: In the same amber tone, she gives her medium-parted hair, the eyes and the amber necklace. If that were a clear reference to the mummy portraits of Fayyum, which are present in all museums, it is all the more the white linen cloth down the belly and the smoothed and large-pored skin as well as the strongly emphasized red of her cheeks, which the constant changes of body and epidermis are incomparably direct captures.