Paula Modersohn-Becker: Self Portrait with Veil 1906;  Girl with Flowers 1907

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s ‘Curious’ Self Portrait

Paula Modersohn-Becker executed many self portraits during the year 1906 when she was having an extended stay in Paris. This was a decisive year for her because her husband Otto, living back home in the Worpswede artist’s colony in Northern Germany, was pressurizing her to return home and have children (their marriage remained so far unconsummated). Torn between her art and the demands of wife-hood, she was wondering what life would be like if she did have a child. Would she able to work with a baby? Many women artists managed this, but Paula was a ‘whole-hearted’ character and no doubt would have not wanted to compromise and juggle both. Her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff had written that motherhood was important to Paula and that she believed one couldn’t be a ‘full’ woman without having given birth. The numerous tender depictions of mother and children in her oeuvre reinforce this.
In her intriguing Self Portrait of 1906 she looks as though pregnant – in fact she wasn’t, though it was painted on her sixth wedding anniversary. (Interestingly she did a self portrait with a bridal veil in the same year (above). She looks out at the viewer with large innocent eyes and a listening, quizzical expression, as if to ask ‘What would it mean for me if I were to bear a child?’ She cups the growing belly with great love, so we know it’s important to her. (There are similarities to a painting of a young girl attentively holding a small vase of budding flowers painted a year later, which could be seen as a kind of self portrait (above). Her pale form merges with the similarly coloured, rather grubby-looking background as though she is asking whether in motherhood her individuality would be lost. She wears her bold amber necklace with pride – a statement perhaps of her ‘earth mother’ status. Her tanned face and right hand also emphasize her connection to the sun, to nature.
The portrait is an endearing one, as it is both bold and fragile (it’s thought to be the first self portrait of a woman artist naked). The sketchy, pale left hand resting lightly on her navel which appears unfinished, echoes the open-ended nature of the work. We the audience are deeply involved in her quest for self and it seems only complete through our response to it. Ironically and tragically, Becker died the following year, only a few days after giving birth to her daughter.