Book Review: Discover the life of expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker with Marie Darrieussecq’s stunning Being Here

A ground breaker in early expressionism, Paula Modersohn-Becker sold only a few paintings in her lifetime. Torn between her home in northern Germany and the vibrant art scene of Paris, her subjects of choice were mothers and children, depicting them in ways that made contemporary critics both uncomfortable and excited in equal measure. The first noted female artist to paint herself not only nude but pregnant, Modersohn-Becker is the focus of Being Here, a new biography from acclaimed French author Marie Darrieussecq.

When I first started reading Being Here, I almost mistook it for fiction. Translated from the original French by Penny Heuston, the only thing that gave Darrieussecq away was the occasional footnote. That Darrieussecq has a prolific and celebrated background in fiction should come as no surprise, given the lyrical and touching way she handles her research into the short life of Modersohn-Becker. Blending historical fact with imaginative flair, Darrieussecq brings her figures to life, imbuing them with emotion, character, and power.

Drawing on countless letters written to and from Modersohn-Becker, Darrieussecq crafts a portrait of a talented and deeply artistic woman, who found kindred spirits in the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and in the city of Paris, where she regularly escaped a marriage she could not endure. Her tragic death in 1907, just days after giving birth to a daughter, seems almost archaic when set against the turn of the century modernity she embodied, and Darrieussecq captures that pain and frustration perfectly.

Darrieussecq also recounts her own discovery of Modersohn-Becker’s oeuvre alongside her exploration of the artist’s life, adding a wonderful personal touch to the work. Her own experiences also helped highlight the need for a more female focused look at art history – if Modersohn-Becker was forgotten for so long, who else is missing from the art history canon?

If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s the lack of images to accompany the story. Perhaps it’s just something I’ve come to expect from art focused biography and non-fiction, but it would have been nice to put images to the descriptions Darrieussecq provides.

“Who was Paula Modersohn-Becker? Why had I never heard anything about her? The more I read, and the more I saw […], the more I said to myself that I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Well, Marie Darrieussecq, you nailed it. Being Here feels almost effortlessly beautiful, a short work of non-fiction told like a flowing piece of fictional prose. Perfect for the art historian and the casual reader alike, brush up on your art history and pick up a copy today!

Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker is published by Text Publishing and is available now.