'An oil sketch should be made just according to the way one once felt something in nature.' – Paula Modersohn-Becker (i)
This small and unassuming landscape painting tells a story of determination, hope and courage. It links the lives of two remarkable women who would defy contemporary expectations to pursue their own creative and intellectual lives, despite facing huge challenges.
During the nineteenth century women artists were rare, but Modersohn-Becker was determined to dedicate her life to creating new art that pushed boundaries.
The painting, Landscape with Windblown Trees, by German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, was owned by German scholar Dr Lotte Labowsky. It is not known how Labowsky came to own the picture, though she was born just two years after the artist’s death and lived in the same region of northern Germany that was home to Modersohn-Becker for most of her adult life. After gaining scholarships to various universities, including the Sorbonne in 1932, Labowsky emigrated to Britain after the first wave of violent anti-Semitism under Hitler’s National Socialist party. She initially worked at the Warburg Institute in London and then secured a fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford. While there she was threatened with internment as an enemy alien and Somerville’s Principal stepped in to ensure her freedom, also writing letters to secure the release of her father. Labowsky would never forget all that the college had done for her and remained at Somerville as an academic and librarian for nearly 50 years. She bequeathed the landscape to the college upon her death in 1991.
Like Labowsky, Paula Modersohn-Becker overcame the odds to live life on her own terms. During the nineteenth century women artists were rare, but Modersohn-Becker was determined to dedicate her life to creating new art that pushed boundaries. She joined the Worpswede group of artists, and lived with them in the artists' colony in the countryside outside Bremen.
She was drawn to the landscape and people of the area, both of which she painted often. However, her horizons were broader than Worpswede alone and she visited London, Berlin and Paris to study and develop as an artist. With limited financial support these visits were not easy and yet her letters home are filled with excitement and ambition to make her mark. While in Paris she saw the work of Rodin, Gauguin and Cézanne and their influences can be seen in the art that she created. Her aim was to reach the ‘utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation’ (ii) within her art. It is this modern viewpoint and approach which connects her to the Expressionist art of the twentieth century. Modersohn-Becker is considered to be the first modern woman artist but unfortunately, the critics and her fellow artists in Worpswede never shared her vision – they were too busy looking backwards. Paula Modersohn-Becker never received the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.
In her journals and letters there is a definite sense of urgency to create and learn as quickly and as much as possible. This resulted in an impressive body of work despite her untimely death at 31. Modersohn-Becker’s work as an important modern artist has been acknowledged to a degree within her native Germany and a retrospective of her work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2016. However, her work is still relatively unknown in Britain and she has yet to assume her rightful and well-deserved place within the canon of the history of modern art.
Kellie Sabin, writer
(i) Busch, G and Von Reinken (1990) The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, p.284
(ii) Busch, G and Von Reinken (1990) The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, p.299
Busch, G & Von Reinken, L (eds), (1983), The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Illanois, Northwestern University Press
Radycki, D (2013), Paula Modersohn-Becker The First Modern Woman Artist, New Haven and London, Yale University Press
Somerville History Blog, (2014) Refugee Scholars at Somerville, blogs.some.ox.ac.uk/archive/2014/04/04/refugees-scholars-at-somerville, 12/07/17