Reappearing Women: A Conversation Between Marie Darrieussecq and Kate Zambreno

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I picked up things here and there, like Kafka’s diaries. Whether she wanted a baby or not, she did want to paint. “Upstairs,” she recalls, “well lit: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Kirchner, Nolde, Kandinsky, Klee. It’s hard to have a name when you’re a woman. Then he discovers these two young girls. And when she paints herself pregnant and she’s not pregnant, it’s so ambivalent. A shame, yes. “On Earth and in her house.” It is a statement of fact that conjures Modersohn-Becker, who died in 1907 at age thirty-one, into being once more. She was not a ghost, she was like a dead woman, and I wanted to honor her memory. Paris was the only city where female students were allowed to paint naked models and learn anatomy. And that’s the point—her name is Paula. ZAMBRENO
She’s a ghost in your text, she flutters in the margins. And it’s not erotic, it’s not a man’s vision. I like fiction, I write novels. They’re not sensual paintings, it’s a dialogue with herself. I like looking at the paintings of lactating virgins. Until the Museum of Modern Art—and it was the perfect place. Later in the book, she visits the Museum Folkwang, in Essen, Germany, to see Modersohn-Becker’s self-portrait and is taken to a “temporary display” in the museum’s basement. A biography is a bit more restrained—you have to tell what you know, so I didn’t have to imagine. [Baby crying in background.]
Clara was interrupted—that’s the word in my mind when I read her letters. Hochzeitstag (Self-Portrait on the sixth wedding anniversary), tempera on canvas, 40.1 in × 27.6 in. ZAMBRENO
She died holding her baby daughter, and her last word was Schade—“a pity.” It’s incredibly tragic. I also learned that she and her daughter lived together in a very small village, and she died in 1953 and, well, that was it. She did something that no one did before her. ZAMBRENO
You call her Paula in your book, but you refer to Rilke as Rilke. It’s the truth about men and women. It still is. ZAMBRENO
But she’s unnamed in it. [Baby crying in background.]
I didn’t want to write a biography, I wanted to write a novel, something completely different. Sometimes she felt ashamed painting women naked, but she needed to do it. She didn’t like to call herself Modersohn because that was Otto’s name, and when she left him, it was not her name anymore. And I went to Bremen to find information. Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis am 6. DARRIEUSSECQ
Yes! Suzanne Valadon, another great painter, painted herself naked ten years later, in 1916, in Paris. Becker was her father’s name, and it was a very common name. It’s a woman’s vision of women who are not Madonnas and not prostitutes. And she was best friends with Clara, and Rilke was in love with both of them—the tall brunette and the small blonde. There was something about Paula’s story, and Clara’s, that feels unfinished.  
The novelist Marie Darrieussecq’s slim, enigmatic biography of the German Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Being Here Is Everything, opens with the author’s visit to the house in which Paula lived with her husband, Otto. DARRIEUSSECQ
It’s the clichéd fantasy of a young man at the beginning of the twentieth century. ZAMBRENO
You and I emailed a little bit about early motherhood and boredom and its relationship to art making and the intellect. Paula wasn’t very receptive to Clara’s feelings of oppression, home alone with the baby. She did not resist marriage. She loved her baby, but she also wanted to do something else. The pictures we have of Paula, too, are haunting. There’s something similar in both of their expressions. But a different gaze, than, say, in Manet’s Olympia. ZAMBRENO
Clara is often erased in this narrative, which is usually focused on Rilke, even in Rilke’s own elegy to Paula. In the beginning, I thought I was going to do a novel, but I wanted to have this woman known, not my imagination of her. What’s fascinating about Paula is that she painted mothers and pregnancy and babies so lovingly and in such a different way, but she was extremely ambivalent about her own pregnancy, about her own domesticity and impending marriage, especially as it relates to her freedom and art making. I went to the big museums in Paris, with postcards in hand, but they didn’t want to do it, she wasn’t well-enough known. She flirted with him a lot, but since she was already engaged to Otto, who was to become her husband, she only flirted. She had very serious aspirations as a sculptor. DARRIEUSSECQ
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write her biography—to give her a bit more life, some justice. ZAMBRENO
There’s a line in Adrienne Rich’s poem that every pregnant woman dreams her own death. And Clara’s money problems—she had no idea of that. It was not exactly a passion. DARRIEUSSECQ
I can’t think of another naked self-portrait by a woman at that point. It’s a fiction, but it’s beautiful. She’s alone in Paris and she paints herself pregnant, and the signature says, “I painted this at the age of thirty, on my sixth wedding anniversary.” I think she’s fantasizing about having a baby—like, How would I look pregnant? Their marriage is a disaster of course. That was the best position—for me, at least—to nurse, but I never had seen that position in a painting. Every time she paints herself naked, she’s smiling, and I like that, because the rest of her paintings are very often … not sad but serious, melancholy. She wanted to ride her bicycle, as she writes Paula, and she couldn’t because her child’s father was completely absent. DARRIEUSSECQ
Paula thought Clara forsook all her power and her creativity for marriage and motherhood. Clara gave the baby to her parents for a year, after which the baby didn’t recognize her. When you love somebody, you want the other people you know to love her, too. DARRIEUSSECQ
She had been married for six years and had just left her husband—May 1906. She looks amused with herself. My opinion is that she was the only woman who didn’t sleep with him. She didn’t understand her friend’s suffering. She had learned to paint nudes by looking at corpses because female students weren’t allowed to paint from live models in Germany. She wanted to paint more than she wanted a baby, I think, but the fact that she painted babies … She doesn’t paint the Virgin and the baby, she paints the mother and the baby. DARRIEUSSECQ
Yes, and Egon Schiele. Being Here   was published in France last year and was released last month in an English translation by Penny Hueston. The show ran for more than six months, and it reached twice the audience they expected. Zambreno recently published Book of Mutter, a meditation on writing, grief, and motherhood. Paula Modersohn-Becker, Liegende Mutter mit Kind II (Reclining Mother with Child II), 1906, oil on canvas,   32 1/2 in. I always tried to have books scattered around, so I could read wherever I sat down. She died leaving an eighteen-day-old baby. In that painting, she looks not naughty but … it’s full of irony. I read a lot when I was nursing. In the middle of writing the book, I felt I needed to show her paintings in an exhibition. What do you think of that painting? When Clara had her baby, Rilke just left the house, he couldn’t stand it, he couldn’t stand the baby’s crying, the baby prevented him from writing, blah blah blah …
I was working on a story on Rilke when I was pregnant—Rilke in his farmhouse unable to write, Rilke in Paris, working on Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—but I was haunted by Paula. The sensuality between mother and baby—they’re languid, and they look very much asleep. It is the photograph of a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”
In reconstituting Modersohn-Becker’s life, Darrieussecq also illuminates a broader problem for   women artists. I received a spam email for a colloquium about psychoanalysis and motherhood. Goddesses, mother-and-child paintings, queens: the only connecting thread is that these works are by women or represent women.” The neat   separation   of modernist masters from   the full historical sweep of women’s art—a literal high and low—encapsulates centuries of thwarted ambition. With him or not? Paula is less typical in a way, but Clara is completely erased. There was a stamp-size painting of a woman nursing but lying on her side. ZAMBRENO
That passage about the bicycle, in her letters to Paula, I find so devastating. At the Louvre, there is work by only four women but thousands and thousands of paintings of women. DARRIEUSSECQ
She was like a dead friend. When she left Otto, she signed her letters “Paula,” with a question mark. Paula and Clara are young, they seem like virgins, they are smart, they are beautiful, they dance very well, they are educated, but not too much, so they’re absolutely perfect. DARRIEUSSECQ
It’s a rather typical feminine destiny. Their friendship was so beautiful and intense and sad, these two women artists alienated from each other. The poses are so awkward—the erect, high breast, the stiff and rigid seating position. ZAMBRENO
What was your relationship with Paula throughout the process? DARRIEUSSECQ
It was on the Internet, actually. She also became a mother some nine months ago; her baby’s cries punctuated their conversation about the process of reviving Modersohn-Becker’s reputation, motherhood and art, and women’s friendships. I don’t really know. Only men were allowed to. —Nicole Rudick
What was your first encounter with Paula? ZAMBRENO
The other artist I think of who painted pregnant women was Klimt. Good or not? Open and thoughtful. How could Clara complain that she was trapped inside, that she just wanted to go ride her bicycle? When I think about nursing and that period of early motherhood, it’s this trancelike laziness. Darrieussecq spoke with the writer Kate Zambreno over the phone earlier this fall. She’s melancholy, this woman in the photos, and she died so early. ZAMBRENO
That’s her most famous self-portrait, with the amber necklace, where she appears to be pregnant but in reality was not yet pregnant. ZAMBRENO
Yes, it’s a very direct gaze. I discovered that it was by Paula Modersohn-Becker, and I wondered why she is so unknown. She felt that Clara had broken with her and   gone in with Rilke, had shut her out of their threesome. DARRIEUSSECQ
Because women have no name. DARRIEUSSECQ
Absolutely. It’s a desire for the most basic freedom—being able to go where she wants. DARRIEUSSECQ
I also compare her to Francesca Woodman, who made naked self-portraits that never sentimentalize. But you know, when an idea persists in your mind, and you wake up with the idea, and you go to bed with the idea … She wouldn’t leave me in peace, so I had to write something about her. DARRIEUSSECQ
Because the information about her is very scarce. For me, it was a fluid, ongoing period. ZAMBRENO
The two girls in white, as he characterized them. She painted herself with a big belly, thinking, How would that be? No one calls him Rainer Maria. I’m sure she did it because models were too expensive, and she didn’t want to ask her husband for more money. “She was here,” Darrieussecq writes. Paula was also the first to paint herself naked. When she could afford it, she hired Italian models in Paris because Italians were recent migrants, they were very poor, and they accepted being painted naked. DARRIEUSSECQ
She was very promising—she seemed more powerful than Paula. Paula is already engaged, and Clara, I think, sleeps with him quite soon, because she’s very pregnant when they get married. ZAMBRENO
How did this book come about? I learned that she traveled to Paris and to Egypt and when she returned, she took her baby back. He had just been dumped by Lou Andreas-Salomé, who was much older and who knew much more about life, and so he was quite unhappy. Downstairs, in the shadows: a mess of statues from antiquity mixed up with contemporary videos. It’s not Manet’s Olympia, and it’s not the Madonna of the Renaissance. I really identified with Clara and Paula during this time. Marriage killed her. × 49 1/10 in. A pity. We all did this—you know, putting cushions under sweaters. ZAMBRENO
I encountered her through Adrienne Rich’s poem about the friendship between Paula and Clara Westhoff, Rich’s answer to Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend.”
And Rilke dedicated his “Requiem” to Paula. ZAMBRENO
I love walking around the early Netherlandish rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. DARRIEUSSECQ
She’s a complex woman, and her ambivalence about having a baby is very modern. ZAMBRENO
Clara had studied with Rodin, even before Rilke was his secretary, and she wrote a monograph on him. In Being Here, Darrieussecq has drawn a complete, if elliptical, portrait of Modersohn-Becker’s short life—her close friendship with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and with Rilke, her marriage to the painter Otto Modersohn, her lifelong insistence on the ability to paint and to have a corner of solitude in which to do it. And the position in Paula Becker’s painting Reclining Mother and Child is very interesting again. “She is staring into space. It was a big success, and my essay was part of the catalogue. Didn’t it begin as a catalogue essay for a museum exhibition in Paris of Paula’s work? That opening sentence sits in   counterpoint to the book’s epigraph, from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Being here is wondrous.” Rilke’s claim arrives with easy certitude; Darrieussecq’s with authorial entreaty. There are many interpretations of what this might mean. DARRIEUSSECQ
Paula’s friendship with Rilke was complex. She didn’t make any more art. ZAMBRENO
In my mind, I always place that self-portrait next to the photograph Diane Arbus took of herself in the mirror when she’s quite young and in the early stages of pregnancy. Becker (before she married) with Clara Westhoff, in the former’s atelier, in 1899. They were too proud to speak about it. “I try to see where her strength resides,” Darrieussecq thinks while looking at a photograph of Paula.