The word from the garret

By Rhonda Dredge

The urban artist today is likely to be a spatial specialist who builds installations out of found materials in out-of-the-way corners of the CBD. 

References are unlikely to be recognisable people or settings from everyday life.

Marie Darrieussecq in Being Here documents the way an artist at the beginning of the 20th century worked in rural Germany. Figurative painting was at its heyday and her account is liberating for those attached to the stories that emerge out of a particular place.

Even though Cezanne was doing experiments with colour and form in France, the content of his work was still connected to the visual world, providing opportunities for ambitious young women with a flair for colour and a good eye.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted nude women – girls from the surrounding countryside and self-portraits, including ones of her own pregnancy. Her life was romantic in the sense that she documented her struggles to create a space for her work.

A century on, and there is a museum devoted to the painter, several books, published letters and memorialisation in the poems of Rilke.

Paula was headstrong and travelled to Paris like so many Europeans to live in a garret and learn how to paint and draw. The European dream was to become a great artist and make the world afresh in your view.

Artist colonies were springing up on the flat steppe of northern Germany where authentic villages were attractive places to stay. The book explores the difference between the more serious German approach to creative work and the lively stimulation of Paris.

Artists, like now, could not live off sales and depended on financial aid from wealthy relatives or a stipend from doting parents. Life typically became more difficult in later life unless one found a patron.

Tragically, Paula died a few weeks after giving birth to a daughter at the age of 31. Until then she had sold only three paintings. Her mother published her letters and she became a bit of a cause celebre, attracting the attention of the Nazis who labelled her work degenerate.

Being Here is an intimate portrayal of a period before the great upheavals of the 20th century. The author is relaxed in the telling, interspersing her own responses with excerpts from letters and accounts of the painter’s relationships with other artists and writers.

An artistic life meant freedom from the strictures of the German house frau – children, chores and piety. Paula remakes the word piety to mean a kind of purity of the self.

This is the 20th book by French writer Marie Darrieussecq, who curated Paula’s first show in Paris in 2016. The book was released last month by Text Publishing, a company that has bravely translated many European books that would never have made it here otherwise.

The company has its own artistic garret in William St in the CBD where piles of books demonstrate their attachment to the printed word. Entry is by a bell on the door.

Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Text Publishing, 2017

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