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This poem is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

And What Will Death Do? Sujata Bhatt

Author's Note

On a cold morning in March 1985, I visited the Kunsthalle Bremen for the first time - indeed it was my very first visit to Germany. And it was there in the Kunsthalle that I had my initial encounter with Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings. I knew of Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) through Rilke's famous poem 'Requiem for a Friend' which he had written for her in 1908. And I knew that she had also been a close friend of Rilke's wife, the sculptor Clara Rilke-Westhoff (1878-1954). Aside from that, however, I did not know much about Modersohn-Becker's life, nor did I know about the importance of her contribution to German and to European art.

The first true modernist in German art, her work defies all attempts at categorisation. However 'simple' and straightforward Modersohn-Becker's subject or approach, the result is always unusual and frequently provocative. She discovered Cézanne's work for herself in Paris in 1900 before he was famous. Her work was open to influences from many artists such as Maillol, Gauguin, Rousseau, van Gogh, as well as the ancient Faiyum painters of Egypt. This is not to imply that her work was derivative. Instead, she transformed these influences within her work and made them her own. Some of her last paintings are said to anticipate Picasso's work: works by Picasso she would not have seen because she was already dead by then. Equally modern and sensitive in her life, Paula Modersohn-Becker's beliefs had nothing to do with dogmas or ideologies. Today, she is considered by many to be the most significant German woman painter of the twentieth century.

Modersohn-Becker died in 1907 at the age of thirty-one, of embolism, eighteen days after giving birth to her only child, a daughter. She left behind a vast body of work. During the last seven years of her life (which exclude her early years of study) she produced 560 paintings, 700 drawings and thirteen etchings. Early critical response to her work was hostile. Fortunately, there were those such as Gustav Pauli (director of the Kunsthalle Bremen) and the German sculptor Bernhard Hoetger who recognised her genius and supported her work. Soon after Hitler came to power, Modersohn-Becker's paintings were entartet, condemned by the Nazis for being 'degenerate'. The Nazis confiscated some of her paintings (those that were in German museums) and sold them abroad, mainly to museums in the United States. The bulk of her work was hidden 'illegally' by friends and by her daughter - thus saving them (the paintings) from harm during the Third Reich. During her lifetime, Modersohn-Becker sold only three or at most four paintings. Rilke, impressed by her work, was the first to buy one in 1905, Säugling mit der Hand der Mutter, 1903 (Infant with its Mother's Hand), in an act of genuine friendship and out of his wish to encourage her and to provide practical support for her work during a time when she had decided to leave her husband, Otto Modersohn.

It has been only in the last twenty-five years or so that Paula Modersohn-Becker's work has gained, however slowly, the respect it has been deprived of. And yet, she is still largely unknown to the general public outside Germany.

To return to that March day in 1985: From the beginning, I was very moved and struck by Modersohn-Becker's paintings. Two weeks later, I returned to Iowa where I was a student at the time and almost immediately wrote my first poem in response to one of her self-portraits. It is now entitled 'Was it the Blue Irises?' and was first published in Brunizem.

Much later, after I received my degree, I married my friend German writer Michael Augustin, who had invited me to Bremen in the first place. And then, I started to live in Germany.

My interest in Modersohn-Becker can be traced to Clara Rilke-Westhoff and ultimately to Rilke and to Rilke's work. I had started reading Rilke's poems in 1974. Then, very much under his spell and keen on reading everything he had written, I turned to his letters and journals. Soon, I became aware of Clara's presence and especially of her silence. Her silence, the fact that she had not left any extensive written record of her feelings, (to my knowledge then), considering her problematic relationship with Rilke and given Rilke's verbal expansiveness, intrigued me and it bothered me. Clara's silence inspired me to break that silence and to imagine what she might have said. I wrote my first poem in Clara's voice in 1979. This poem, now entitled 'No Road Leads to This' (first published in Brunizem) grew out of my desire to give life to Rilke's abstract notion of love as 'two solitudes greeting and saluting each other'. At that time (1979), of course, I had never been to Germany and so did not have a clue as to what Worpswede looked like. Maps, pictures and written descriptions of the place proved to be useful. Ultimately, however, the physical world I created in the poem had to be imagined. Little did I know that many years later, I would be living just a few miles away from Worpswede, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Kunsthalle Bremen which accommodates the works of the major Worpswede artists, including Clara Rilke-Westhoff.

Clara Rilke-Westhoff was a sculptor at a time when it was unheard of for women to engage in such strenuous artistic work. Indeed, in those days, the word 'Bildhauerin' (sculptress) sounded ridiculous to German ears. However, she quickly won the respect and admiration of her teachers, Max Klinger and Auguste Rodin. In fact, it was through Clara that Rilke became acquainted with Rodin. Clara Rilke-Westhoff's work is even more unknown than that of Modersohn-Becker's. Owing to her continual financial difficulties, she could not always afford the materials for her work and so she produced relatively few pieces of sculpture. She is most famous for her remarkable busts of Rilke, especially the one created in 1905, which Rodin admired tremendously.

In 1994, after I wrote my second poem connected with another Modersohn-Becker self-portrait, - now entitled 'Self-Portrait on My Fifth Wedding Anniversary, 25-5-06' (first published in The Stinking Rose) - I thought of eventually writing a sequence of poems entirely devoted to and drawing their inspiration from Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings, especially the self-portraits of which there are more than fifty and which appear at every stage of Modersohn-Becker's artistic development. By that time (1994), I was long familiar with Paula's biography and with her letters and journals. The German language itself had a new resonance for me as I watched my small daughter grow up. (More recently, listening to her learn and recite Rilke's poems for school has added another dimension to my relationship with Rilke's work.) My poems grew out of this atmosphere.

One does not usually associate poetry with research. I, however, find myself increasingly drawn to subjects that demand research: subjects that are either historical events or historical figures. Ironically, I find that the facts often free the imagination to probe deeper, to imagine things that otherwise could not have been imagined. Practically all of my research was conducted in German. However, since English is my language, the poems are in English. Paula and Clara, of course, had spoken in German to each other. And so, in a sense there was always a certain amount of linguistic tension that I experienced in the making of this book. At the same time, there were days when I was not aware of the language I was working in. There were days when I was only aware of the sounds, rhythms, colours and emotions involved with my 'characters' or 'speakers'.

Over the years, I have been to many art exhibitions dealing with Modersohn-Becker and some of her more famous contemporaries in different parts of Germany and in other countries in Europe. Since my early days in Bremen, I have known the actress, Hille Darjes, who is Modersohn- Becker's grandniece. Hille's mother grew up with Paula's daughter, for it was Hille's grandmother, Milly Rohland- Becker (Paula's sister), who looked after the newborn Mathilde right after Paula's death. Knowing Hille Darjes, who introduced me to Mathilde (Tille) Modersohn, has of course given me a more personal link with Paula Modersohn-Becker.

The book started with poems in response to Paula's paintings but then included Clara's sculptures and started to explore the close friendship between the two women. And then, the poems inevitably included Rilke and Paula's and Clara's perception of him, especially in connection with their portrayals of him in paint or in bronze. I say 'their' perception of Rilke, however, it is of course 'their perception' as I have imagined it. For although Paula's letters and journals have largely survived, there is a great deal she did not comment on. And when she was most deeply immersed in her painting, she left no written record of her thoughts. Here, I should add that Clara has not been entirely silent. Her private journals, however, still remain sealed and unavailable. Various people, including Paula, have recorded their memories of Clara and their conversations with her and I have found these memoirs useful in imagining Clara's voice. As a poet, I have been more interested in exploring and imagining what has been left unsaid and what has been left aside for speculation by biographers and art historians. Therefore, Clara's (and Paula's) relative silence has been more of an inspiration to me than a hindrance. Modersohn- Becker's own relationship with Rilke was also quite complex. Many biographers believe that Rilke married Clara Westhoff impulsively on the rebound when he learned that Paula was secretly engaged to the much older painter, Otto Modersohn. Paula herself was astonished by Rilke's decision to marry Clara and grew increasingly disillusioned as her own marriage disappointed her and as she felt Rilke prevented her from seeing Clara Westhoff (her dearest friend) the way she had been accustomed to in the past. So far, to a large extent, Rilke has had the last word regarding both Clara and Paula. I wanted to change that, to restore the balance, so to speak.

My own life in Bremen and my frequent visits to Worpswede have no doubt entered the poems, even where it is not apparent. And my experience of the weather, the landscape, the language and the music of Northern Germany has surely affected my perception of the colours in Modersohn- Becker's paintings. At the same time, being the ultimate foreigner, I retain the perspective of an outsider. And perhaps to some extent, responding to Modersohn-Becker's work has been a way for my mind to enter and try to understand a totally alien culture and country. In the end, of course, there are the poems, just the poems, for there is a great deal that cannot be explained or analysed in rational, numerical terms, or even in prose.

Notes about the text

  1. The titles of the poems responding to Modersohn-Becker's selfportraits and other paintings are in some cases taken from the paintings, however in other cases, I have given them my own titles. (Other poems from this sequence appeared in PNR 139 and 141.)
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