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Paula Modersohn-Becker: Old Peasant Woman

ArtWay Visual Meditation 21 February 2021

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Paula Modersohn-Becker: Old Peasant Woman

Biblical Simplicity

by Deborah Lewer

An old woman, dressed in blue, is seated in an indeterminate space. Her gaze is unfocused, her posture one of reflective stillness. Her large, strong hands are crossed at her breast, in an attitude of prayer. A small golden flower lies in her lap. There is a subtle light around her head, like a nimbus.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) painted this work in about 1905 in the small, remote, north German village of Worpswede. She had joined a community of artists there, all drawn to the broad landscape of marshes and birch woods and to the idea of simplicity. Her subject is a woman of the local poorhouse. She painted and drew her many times, paying her a small amount to sit for hours, while the artist observed the bent body, weather-worn face, rough hands, and basic clothes, striving for what she called “the utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation”.

The painting tells us something of what it was to be an elderly German woman, with a life of work on the land and at home behind her, living in rural poverty. It tells us other things about an era of modernity that left rural communities behind, or emptied them, or made them into curiosities for urbanites seeking remnants of a lost past. But this painting is also a vivid and deeply humane revisioning of one of the most poignant and pivotal images of art and of Christian tradition: the Annunciation.

The museums and churches of Europe are full of them: an illogically pale young virgin, most commonly on the right, facing left, almost always in blue, receiving the angelic messenger. Asking “how can this be?” Following Renaissance traditions the virgin’s bodily gestures dramatise stages of her response – disquiet, reflection, inquiry, acquiesence. The posture of prayer that this old peasant adopts in a distant German village most closely echoes the virgin annunciate’s gesturing of humility and acceptance. She is seated in an unspecified environment. There are no books, lilies, beds or vases. But the foliage beyond her bulky body suggests a garden at the same time that it resembles a patterned wallpaper. There’s an echo, very distant, of the enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, in which tradition has long placed the virgin. The painting draws together youth and age, tradition and modernity, the extraordinary and the ordinary, imagination and observation, the sacred and the secular.

Modersohn-Becker spent her most formative years studying and immersing herself in art in Paris. As well as learning from Gauguin, from Cézanne and others, she would go daily to the Louvre. She knew these gestures, these eloquent conventions, and how great artists broke them, too. And when she returned yet again, to the peat bogs of Worpswede, she met the “biblical simplicity”, as she described it, of the peasants there, and painted them, bold, modern and new.    

We are entering the season of Lent. Forty days. A time for leaving familiar comforts and company to go into the wilderness, to fast, and to pray. In 2021 many of us are longing for an end to isolation and renunciation. I wonder about this painting as one for our Lent: with its image of habituated, intimate, ordinary prayer we might see in it both the call to relinquish what we do not need and accept what we have and the promise of new life, of hope, that the Annunciation heralds.

This painting was made by one woman not known to pray observing another from a community for whom prayer was woven into the fabric of life. What do we see, through their eyes?

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Paula Modersohn-Becker: Old Peasant Woman, oil on canvas, c. 1905, Detroit Institute of Arts.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) gained no public recognition as an artist during her short lifetime and died from complications after childbirth in 1907. The artist’s works were finally being recognised in Germany for their astonishing originality by 1919. This painting was acquired for the collection of the Hamburg Kunsthalle in that year. But in 1937 it was confiscated, along with many other works by the artist as part of the National Socialists’ attempt to eradicate the so-called ‘degenerate art’ of German public collections. It was sold on the international market for 120 US dollars. In 1958 the US collector who bought it from a gallery donated it to the Detroit Institute of Arts.   

Dr. Deborah Lewer is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is a specialist in 20th century German art and in the relationship between art and theology as well as politics. She is an expert on the most radical movement in the history of modern art, Dada. She is also a regular speaker in churches, theological colleges and at festivals, a popular retreat leader, a writer and occasional broadcaster.

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IN VIEW

1. LENT PROJECT BIOLA – Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts once again presents the Lent Project: a 53-day aesthetically guided meditation on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection with curated Scripture passages, devotionals, works of art, poems, and music that reflect on the incomparable love of Christ as we remember the sacrifice of our great Redeemer. To subscribe and have each day delivered directly to your email in-box, click here

2. VCS LENT - The Lent project of The Visual Commentary on Scripture with discussions of artworks is running Monday to Friday from 11 February until Good Friday. Daily links will be emailed to you, uploaded on the VCS Lent Page and shared on Twitter (@TheVCS) and Facebook (@www.theVCS.org).

3. SOLOMON RAJ BIRTH CENTENARY – 21 February, 3.00 – 6.00 pm, Hyderabad Bible College, India: Birth Centenary celebration of Dr. P. Solomon Raj. Some 70 people will gather together to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Raj. A Telugu Poetry book, Solomon's last writing, will be released by the former Vice-Chancellor of SV University, Tirupati. Some 37 Essays of Solomon are coming up as a book, "Dynamics of Art, Faith and Culture: Theological Essays of Dr. P. Solomon Raj. The Chancellor of SHUATS will release the Book and deliver the key note. A first ever exhibition of Solomon works in Biblia Pauperum in Color will be unveiled by Dr. Ch. Vasantha Rao.

4. CHURCHES IN GERMANY - Future of Religious Heritage’s country of the month is Germany. A country with a diverse and unique variety of religious heritage architecture. This month's featured Religiana list takes a look at one of these unique styles, the famous half-timbered churches of the state of Hesse. 

5. VESSELS: REVISIONING THE VESSEL – At Delaware Contemporary Art Museum. Sandra Bowden has two of her book/boxes, Pearl of Great Price and Book of Nails in the invitational Vessels: Revisioning the Receptacle, curated by Kathrine Page. Twenty-four artists in this exhibition reexamine the purpose, shape, illusion and allusion of the vessel. The exhibition runs January 16 - May 23. View The Show

6. SANDRA BOWDEN PODCAST INTERVIEW – Dr. Dru Johnson interviews scholars, and artists. In December 2020 he interviewed Sandra Bowden for his Biblical Artist Series. The Biblical Mind is dedicated to helping its audience understand the deep structures of Scripture. It is published by the Center for Hebraic Thought, a hub for research and resources promoting biblical literacy and the intellectual world of the Bible. Listen Here

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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Other recent meditations:
- February 2021: Hansa Versteeg: Omen
- February 2021: Petra Zantingh: Watchful Trees
- February 2021: Duo Empfangshalle
- January 2021: Lambach Abbey: Healing of a Possessed Man

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists