"True joy is a secret thing and is found in solitude"

Being Here Is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, by Marie Darrieussecqu, Translated from the French by Penny Hueston. The literal translation would have been To be here is a splendor.  

The title alone caught my attention. Before I found this book, I wasn't aware of Paula's art though have a vague recollection of seeing prints in museum gift shops. I found myself reading the concluding two sentences over and over, abrupt and beautiful like the artist's life. 

"Paula is here, with her pictures. We are going to see her." (p. 151)

Darrieussecqu describes seeing the paintings in a museum in Wuppertal, where they were stored in the basement at the time in a "cold exhibition on the gray cement floor" (p. 146). Even in 2014 when the book was written, Paula's and women's art lay hidden from the public while the famous Monets, Gauguins, Van Goghs glowed in the spotlight. The description of the paintings and their location made me think of a tomb. Paula's tomb.

My copy is full of tiny orange sticky notes, tabs marking passages that stirred me. Many of these tiny stickies are torn in twos or threes, pages bookmarked in a hurry, like tying little flags on tree branches when hiking further into an untrodden path in the woods. On the cover, there is Paula's self portrait with irisis. 

"It is a tipping point, a perfect moment. Pure simplicity: this is me, these are the irisis. See: this is what I am, in colors and in two dimensions, mysterious and composed. [...] The beads in the necklace are the same shape and color as her eyes. Her mouth is slightly open, her gaze anxious; she is exhaling, breathing, she is going to speak." (p. 100)

Paula Becker is a German artist and developed an interest in painting from a young age. She is immersed in her art and persuades her parents to let her go to Paris, where she studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1900, the year the school allows female pupils (p. 22). She spends her days making and admiring art, falling in love with the city, enjoying simple meals in her small studio consisting of bread, cheese and pears, and sharing her passions with her lifelong friend Clara Westhoff (a sculptor) and their poet friend Rainer Maria Rilke. Paula fancies Otto Modersohn, a landscape painter eleven years her senior, with whom she exchanges letters throughout her travels. Otto's wife dies from tuberculosis and the two promptly marry (p. 55). Paula Becker becomes Paula Modersohn-Becker, and her friends Rilke and Clara are wed the same year. Clara becomes Clara Rilke-Westhoff.

"Why do we tell our deepest secrets, and to whom? At the beginning of a love affair." (p. 50)

Paula and Otto drift apart, primarily because she sought independence and resisted Otto's nudging to bear a child. He didn't take her art very seriously, not like her friend Rainer Maria. Rainer was perhaps, the author ascertains, the only man who saw her as an equal in their lifetime. Paula leaves Otto to live in Paris without his permission. He writes her heartfelt letters in hopes of reaching her. Finally, although she turns him away, she changes her mind and the couple reunite for one last honeymoon together. She becomes a mother unexpectedly, and dies from an embolism after the birth of the child (p. 141).

The author examines Paula's experiences without judgement, portraying the pivotal points of the artist's short life, connecting journal entries and letters between friends and loved ones. Rilke and Paula and Clara, the three were inseparable even when their marriages divided them. She relies on the letters and Paula's art to speak for itself. 

"[T]rue joy is a secret thing and is found in solitude." (p. 133)

This biography is a celebration of Paula's life. A celebration of a serious, rich and beautiful life. 

A celebration of being here.

 


So many beautiful trees had fallen in July

I am writing from the balcony in the afternoon. A pleasant warm breeze brushes my arms every few seconds and the sun, now hidden behind the building, draws slanted line shadows on the wood floor. The floor boards feel warm to the touch, but I mostly keep my feet tucked in and perched on the foot rest under the chair. There was a dove cooing earlier, its call drawing me out here. Doves are one of my favorite kind of bird because I like how they resemble an ordinary city pigeon but much more refined and delicate. I associate the cooing morning dove with summertime, with a bittersweet nostalgia for long summer days that were lonely and treasured all the same.

There is a buzz of air conditioners and tree frogs that sound like something electrical and unnatural. Helicopters are whirring past, and a faint screech of trains turning on the tracks. I'm easily carried away by all these sounds, and distracted by the two white butterflies fluttering around and the cat on the windowsill across. He has folded his paws underneath his chest. When I glance up at him he is either looking back at me or sniffing the net separating him from the outside and squinting his eyes in the direction of the sun. There is a superstition or saying, if a cat folds his front paws under it means a cold day is coming. Similarly, I've noticed moments before the rain birds stop chirping and grow quiet. It is as though every living being is sitting still, awaiting the storm. Whenever I hear birds start chattering it is a sign the rain is over and I crave being outside again.

In July the rain fell like a steady shower in a straight line, and on some days the wind threw it violently in all directions like waves crashing into rocks. I have made a point to look back and summarize the best moments at the end of each month. The truth is, this July has been hard. Leafing through the pages in my journal, there were mostly rainy days. In the aftermath of a thunderstorm, I pulled the bicycle to the side of the road to snap a photograph of an old willow tree that was struck by lightning and texted it to my husband. 
"So many beautiful trees had fallen", he replied. I felt furious at the rain drops blurring my glasses, the heat of adrenaline pumping anger through my veins. I have felt on edge nearly every day. The more time passes the more I realize just how unfair life is and very little surprises me anymore, which makes me feel more angry because I still cling to the hope that it doesn't have to always be this way. 

I heard a woodpecker out here this morning and noticed him climbing up the building, knocking his head against the board as he went, and that made the tightness in my chest loosen its grip. Yesterday we found a new hidden path atop a hill, where the clouds seemed to float in one place against the light blue sky like a painting. We saw the rooftops and skylights of extravagant houses on the street below, and the shrubs on either sides of the rocky path tickled my legs. I witnessed a young robin fly directly into the side of a house, hitting it with a thud and falling in the garden. I crept up on the front steps to investigate, and found he was alright if not a little bit shaken. 

There was a store closing book sale this week and I noticed a thick orange square book on the display shelf outside, "Flowers" on its cover. The spine is faded pink after being in the sun for years. I carefully wrapped it this morning in tissue paper covered in a pattern of clementine branches, a small gift I want to give to my mom in hopes of inspiring her to paint or plant a garden. The book opens with this inscription and is an anthology of art featuring flowers.
"When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." (Georgia O'Keeffe)

I want you to know that not all our best moments are joyous ones, but if you sit very still and listen you will find a small happiness. 



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