When I Google search “Paula M. Becker,” almost every entry insists she was one of the most important figures in early Expressionism, a contemporary of men we are on last-name basis with: Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Munch. In her native Germany, her works adorn postcards, magnets, and posters. She has been heralded as the first Western woman artist to paint herself naked. She has been claimed as the first Western woman artist to paint herself pregnant. She traveled often to Paris and developed close friendships with the painter Heinrich Vogeler and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She began a series of correspondence based around a mutual admiration for the other’s art with Otto Modersohn, which lead to their marriage in 1901. And yet, her name barely appears alongside these men in the annals of art history. She deserves her own biography. Luckily, Marie Darrieussecq has written it.
The fascination with these lost characters of history, often encountered as a footnote or brief chapter in someone else’s story, can lead a writer on an incredible journey. When Darrieussecq encountered Becker’s work, used as an illustration on a flyer for a psychoanalysis symposium on motherhood, she recognized the painting but not the painter. So began her nearly five-year journey into discovering who Becker was, how she lived and what made her “be” besides her painting. Of course, there is always more to the story than just the work itself for those whose work resonates throughout decades, but often these details are locked away by more traditional biographers who have little time for details of the character’s personal lives. Darrieussecq, so taken with Becker and her celebrity-studded social circle, and wanting to understand who she was and how she came to paint the way she did, leaves no stone unturned in her quest for information on Becker.