She worked at fever pitch, producing 80 pictures in a year, and was dead by 31 – an intense and fragmentary account of a unique artist by Marie Darrieussecq
Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first woman to paint a naked self-portrait – and while apparently pregnant, at that – in 1906. She worked at fever pitch, bemoaning the waste of her first two decades and producing in her penultimate summer a painting every four or five days. Regularly described as an expressionist, her portraits don’t look like anything or anyone else. Her women are crude and exact, glowing with strange colours: Balthus as a feminist, Gauguin by way of The Dark Crystal. She died in 1907 at the age of 31, having sold three paintings in her lifetime, leaving behind a forest of letters and diaries.
Marie Darrieussecq, a French writer best known in the UK for her startling 1996 debut novel Pig Tales, first came across Modersohn-Becker in an email in her junk folder, illustrated with a small picture of a woman breastfeeding. It was so unfamiliar it stopped her in her tracks. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t already know about this German artist who painted real women, real behaviour with such confident frankness. Why was she not exhibited in Paris, the city she had made her home? “Do we have to assume that she did not have her universal visa?”