by Diane Radycki. Yale University Press, April 2013. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780300185300 (cl.), $60.00.

Reviewed January 2014
Kathleen Duff, Visiting Researcher, Harvard College Library, Harvard University, kathleen_duff@post.havard.edu

Art historian Diane Radycki argues that Paula Modersohn- Becker (1876-1907) is the first modern woman artist. A German painter from the Worpswede art colony near the Baltic Sea, Modersohn-Becker swallowed whole the art that she discovered in short visits to Paris through 1907: Cézanne’s modernist landscapes, Gaugin’s late work, Picasso’s cubism, and Egyptian encaustic death portraits in the Louvre. All deeply influenced her work with radical results. Exhibiting infrequently and selling very few paintings, she died suddenly at age thirty-one leaving over 700 paintings, drawings, and etchings done during ten years from 1897-1907. The author characterizes the artist as “out-of bounds before there was any context for understanding and judging her new and difficult work,” and indeed fifteen years after her death, the Nazis included Modersohn-Becker in the Degenerate Art Exhibition.

Radycki’s book, based on her 1994 doctoral dissertation, presents the premise, in a complex narrative supported by paintings, prints, drawings, and photos, that Modersohn-Becker is the first modern woman artist in Western art because of her “epochal” nudes and nude self-portraits. Radycki’s argument requires from the reader background knowledge of the artists and art culture in Paris at the turn of the century, as well as the technical aspects of form in the female nudes to fully understand the significance and impact of this artist’s work. This book is not a biography, nor a catalogue raisonné, but a narrative collage of Modersohn-Becker’s art and life with “threshold moments” in “uncharted territory.” The artist’s “epochal nudes” are especially critical to where, when, and how her extraordinary paintings fit into the history of modern art.

The book’s collage-like chapters, format, and text are complicated to follow to get a descriptive picture of the development of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Appendices provide a family tree (surprisingly a text rather than a diagram) and ten significant life events outside of Modersohn-Becker’s art, followed by the author’s notes, and illustration credits. The bibliographic sources are embedded within the author’s notes. The book is bound with hard boards covered with paper (not cloth), sewn signatures, and printed on high-quality lightly- coated paper with illustrations in both color and black and white.

As Modersohn-Becker was aptly memorialized by the epic poem “Memorial to a Friend” written by her friend, the writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, after the artist’s untimely death, so is Radycki’s research as much a tribute and testimony to the artist’s enduring significance in the history of modern art. The book is recommended for libraries with collections in art, history of art, modern art, gender studies, and German history, literature, art and culture.

Copyright © 2014 ARLIS/NA

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