"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.

 


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