Radycki Authors New Book on German Modernist Painter
Moravian’s Art Historian Details Life and Work of Paula Modersohn-Becker
Diane Radycki’s first introduction to Paula Modersohn-Becker, the German modernist painter she examines in her new book, Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist (Yale University Press, 2013), began what she called “her life’s great adventure.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, Radycki, an associate professor at Moravian College and director of the Payne Gallery, first encountered Modersohn-Becker’s work in an art history class. The course’s professor, who had photographed her work while in Germany, knew little, if anything about the artist – and he admitted as such. Yet, he couldn’t help but share the powerful images. “I, too, was fascinated by the imagery,” Radycki recalled. “I had never seen anything like it before.”
All these years later, Radycki calls Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) a “daring innovator of gender imagery,” noting that she was the first woman artist to challenge centuries of traditional representations of the female body in art. Most notably, she was first to paint herself nude, as well as mothers and their children nude.
Radycki’s new book is part biography, reception history, and visual analysis of the artist’s life and work. During her life, which was cut short at the age of 31 following complications from childbirth, the German painter battled professional struggles and personal anguish. However, she also shared warm friendships with poet Rainer Maria Rilke and sculptor Clara Rilke-Westhoff.
“I couldn’t believe they answered so quickly. You usually wait weeks to hear back. There were no words for how excited I was.”
– Diane Radycki
Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist, which is the first American publication on the painter in more than two decades, brings the artist to life. This is a significant step considering for much of the 20th century she was relatively unknown in the United States. Radycki realized this as a graduate student at Harvard University, when she circled back to Modersohn-Becker while contemplating her dissertation work. She wanted to delve into a matter that was a “real contribution to the field,” but that also interested her.
To Radycki’s surprise, at that time there was still no literature in English on Modersohn-Becker. Once Radycki completed her dissertation, which highlighted the reception of the painter’s work in the 20th century, she contacted publishers about expanding the research into the book. Their responses were all the same: “She is unknown in the States, and we can’t risk our bottom line on an unknown.” This was Yale’s response, too, until Radycki emailed the press again in 2011 – some 15 years since her original inquiry. This time her message was responded to in less a minute. Soon thereafter, a publishing deal was in place.
“I couldn’t believe they answered so quickly. You usually wait weeks to hear back,” Radycki said. “There were no words for how excited I was.”
In her book, Radycki analyzes the painter’s work – figure (especially nudes), still life and landscape – and details the rise of her reputation, from obscurity following her death in 1907 to notoriety in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. The author credits Modersohn-Becker for painting the life she was living as a woman and modern artist, which led the way for generations of women artists to come.
Radycki’s book has received much applause, including The Huffington Post naming it one of the “15 of the Best Release” in the Arts Book Category. Alessandra Comini, distinguished emerita professor of art history at Southern Methodist University, also called the book, “masterful.”
Radycki will present a lecture at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the invitation of the Department of German and Russian, on the life and work of Modersohn-Becker.
Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist is available on Amazon.com.
< Back to main page