Painting of the Week / Thomas Abbs

Painting of the Week: 79

Paula Modersohn Becker Madchenbildnis

Paula Modersohn Becker (1876–1907), Mädchenbildnis, circa 1905, oil on canvas, 41 x 53cm, Von der Heydt-Museum.

I recently finished reading Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1946). A book that can broadly be described as a twelve-year-old girl’s attempt to understand her simultaneous desire to belong and to run away, whilst grappling with the idea of growing up. My edition’s cover features a portrait by German Expressionist Paula Modersohn Becker (painted the same year, but different to the one above), and for me seemed one of those rare occasions where cover and content fit perfectly – like this. So good job to whomever at Penguin in the late ‘80s(?) made this happen.

In a letter written to her younger sister in 1905, Becker – then 28, the same age, coincidentally, as McCullers was when she wrote the novel – offers some advice on aging:

‘Sometimes life is harder than some other times, but one must simply deal with that. In fact, one must become a better person because of it, and that is something I dread because it is so boring. For in spite of my thirtieth birthday, which is approaching, I’m afraid of being ‘grown up’, which I identify with being ‘resigned’ … Nevertheless, I tell myself that the things that are hard are not always the things that one should avoid.’ [1]

While McCullers’ work centres around misfits and spiritual loneliness in the American South, and The Member of the Wedding specifically on the frenzied mind of a motherless child, Becker and McCullers both, with pathos and empathy, express – seemingly without a clear message, or answer to – the continual awkwardness to fit in that continues from childhood to adulthood. Though each of their works are punctuated with moments of ecstasy, a feeling of loneliness – which can often be found at a publishing event – constantly threatens to surface. TA

[1] Paula Modersohn-Becker, The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker, ed. Gunter Busch and Liselotte von Reinken (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 376

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