Stories and pictures

Publication date: 27 February 2013
Published by: Sipora Levy

The poet and art critic, Sue Hubbard, has written a richly layered book about Paula Modersohn-Becker, a little-known but pioneering expressionist German painter of the early 20th century, whose tragically short life produced over 400 paintings and drawings of exceptional quality (Girl in White, Cinnamon Press, £8.99).

As an artist, she was determined to develop an authentic style, refusing to pander to the romantic fashion of the time. She lived and worked before the advent of psychoanalysis and women’s suffrage, though much of her work speaks of unconscious thoughts and feminist ideals.

She was driven by a passion for self-determination together with a wish for love and motherhood. She loved the solitude of the north German moors but was drawn repeatedly to Paris, the centre of the art world.

Paula Becker married the artist Otto Modersohn, 10 years her senior, but also had an intense relationship with the poet Raina Maria Rilke, husband of Paula’s friend Clara Westhoff, a sculptor.

In Hubbard’s moving imagining of Paula’s story, she creates a believable, parallel tale about Paula’s daughter Mathilde, a violinist. Apart from the fact that she was born in 1907, a few days before her mother’s death, little is known about Mathilde. In Hubbard’s account, she finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her married Jewish lover, Daniel, who flees Berlin with the rise of Nazism in 1933.

She then travels to Worpeswede, on the north German moors, so beloved by her mother, to try to come to terms with her mother’s life and her own.

Girl in White - An interview with Sue Hubbard

Publication date: 25 JANUARY 2013


Some months ago I mentioned Girl in White, Sue Hubbard's most recent novel which was published in the autumn. Sue kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog about her writing.

I learnt about Paula Modersohn-Becker when my first poetry collection, Everything begins with the Skin, (Enitharmon) was published and I was asked to do two readings in Bremen and in Hanover. It was in Bremen that I first came across her work in the beautiful museum dedicated to her. I also visited Worpswede, which is very similar in topography to the Somerset levels, near where I used to live. The wild landscape with its dykes and birches and German farmhouses, caught my imagination. I was looking for a new subject for a novel and decided that I wanted, as an art critic, to write about an artist. I also identified with Paula’s life and her battles; her desire for emotional intimacy and a child, her struggle to make a living and survive as an artist. I could also relate to her love of Worpswede and the wild rural landscape, as well as her desire to be in the thick of things in Paris. I myself had lived in Somerset and now live in Islington.
Paula Becker is not a well-known artist, nor was she much admired by many of her contemporaries. Reading this novel I have no doubt you will wish she was. Hubbard, having studied the events of Becker’s life through her paintings and letters, obviously believes this is a story that needs to be told and how right she is. Using knowledge she has gained from her study of Becker, as well as, admittedly, a little of her imagination Hubbard’s skill here is to literally bring Becker back to life. The depth of the narrative reveals the tortured and lonely soul of Paula as she struggled to gain the revered status she desired. The reader feels her pain and sacrifice as she fails time and time again to reach her own ridiculously high standards, yet her unwavering belief in her potential to get there shows an admiral level of self-courage and belief. Often lonely, often brave and often selfish the reader gains real insight into Becker’s ambitious and obstinate mind, desiring her success as much as she does.
How long did the book take from that initial idea to a finished manuscript? On reading the Girl in White it felt at times as if I was walking around Paris and Worpswede with Paula, how much research did you do for the book and did it involve going to France and Germany?
There was a long gestation period thinking about it. And I did a lot of research. I am not a German speaker, and it is not a biography, so I didn’t need all the facts, but I did need enough to get to know her. I found a rather bad translation of her diaries published by an obscure American university press and I read a lot of Rilke, along with his letters to Cézanne etc. After my first visit to Worpswede I went back by myself and just walked around soaking up the atmosphere and visiting Paula’s house. The village is very different now. Then it was very remote. The community was started as a way of artists turning their backs on modernity and returning to the land and the simple life of the peasants. There were a number of such communities around Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was part of the Modernist project – a going away, and leaving what was inauthentic for the authentic. It is what Gauguin and Van Gogh did in Brittany, and later Gauguin in Tahiti. Now Worpswede is a place with cafes and tea shops. I didn’t especially go to Paris. I know it reasonably well and I researched it by reading contemporary material. It was very important that it should not be a sentimental version of Paris, but the real, dirty, smelly place that it was then.
What was the most difficult part of the writing, were there any aspects that you struggled with?
For me, having started as a poet, the most difficult thing is always to find a convincing structure. It took time to find that. As a poet it is much easier to write about the moment than to get people in and out of rooms! But you have to find a narrative arc. Using Paula’s daughter, who did exist, but in my account is entirely fictionalised, gave me a framing device that allowed me to tell Paula’s story, to live her imagined life, as well as investigate, by setting it in 1933, what had gone wrong with German Romanticism and the ideals that the Worpswede group had of returning to the land and the simple life. By 1933 this had become corrupted to “blood, soil, the volk and the fatherland” – and this slippage interests me. Paula was denounced as a degenerate artist by the Nazis.
I’m interested in this blurring of the facts of her real life with the life you’ve imagined for her, especially her struggles to reconcile the demands of being an artist with trying to have a domestic life as well. It had a modern feel and I wondered how much was in her diaries and how much you drew on your own experience? It’s rather shocking that we should still have their dilemmas as women a hundred years on.
Well I used her diaries a good deal and the emotions I give her I think exist in these. But it is not coincidence, I suppose, that I chose her because she mirrors much of my own emotional experience and I felt pretty close to her at times. I think the choice for younger women is still complicated. It is just that now it is more acceptable to be ruthless; to be a writer or an artist who is dedicated to your career. It is harder if one wants children - then the pull remains - the guilt that one is always in the wrong shoes, that one does not have enough energy, is neither a good enough mother nor artist.....
And related to the above question you decided the role played in the novel by her daughter, Mathilde would be entirely fictional, including her having an affair with a married man in Germany of the 1930s. That feels brave to me – did you have any dilemmas about doing this?
Not really. If I had wanted to be entirely factual I would, as an art critic, have written a biography. All acts of writing are a form of translation. Paula becomes my fictional Paula - though I do believe she is pretty similar to the actual person. But even so what I have written is an act of fiction and Mathilde had a formal literary role. She is there to frame the story, to stop it being merely biography, to allow me to imagine and also to explore the relationship between the Utopianism of the Worpswede painters and the slippage into the attitudes of the Third Reich. It also opens up the whole debate as to what is the best way to reveal a life. It is quite possible that fiction is more emotionally accurate than bald fact. Even a biographer is, to some extent, writing fiction.
And if your novel has inspired the reader to want to find out more about Paula what would you suggest? I’m assuming from your comment about the quality of the translation that you wouldn’t want recommend her diaries? I was surprised to discover that the Paula-Modersohn Museum in Bremen is the first museum in the world dedicated to a female artist.
No the diaries - as translated at present - are rather turgid, though useful to me. I would certainly suggest the PMB museum in Bremen - a very pretty city. There is also a painting in the Courtauld but little else here in the UK. And of, course, there is Rilke's poem, Requiem to a Friend - but that might tell you more about Rilke than PMB
I thought it was lovely that your first poetry collection, Everything begins with Skin (Enitharmon) led several books later to the Girl in White so what will come next for you? Another novel or a collection of poetry and do you work on one thing at a time or have several writing projects on the go?
Well I have a new collection from Salt coming out this spring: “The Forgetting and Remembering of Air.” and I am working on another novel based in Ireland. So we will see where that leads. I usually work on several things at once. Poems come very slowly and irregularly, where as I can plod on with writing prose and keep going back and editing it, hoping that each time it gets better - and, of course, I am always writing about art, but it all takes a very long time!

Sue Hubbard’s ‘Girl in White’
Publication date: 28 November 2012
Published by: Frances Smithson 

Francis Smithson reviews Sue Hubbard’s emotive novel focusing on the life of artist Paula Modersohn-Becker.Set against the backdrop of the darkness of Germany 1933, Girl in White begins its narrative with the character of Mathilde, a young woman pregnant by her married Jewish lover. Fleeing to the remote village of Worpswede, previously a commune for artists, she begins the emotional journey of unravelling the life of her mother – the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Paula Becker is not a well-known artist, nor was she much admired by many of her contemporaries. Reading this novel I have no doubt you will wish she was. Hubbard, having studied the events of Becker’s life through her paintings and letters, obviously believes this is a story that needs to be told and how right she is. Using knowledge she has gained from her study of Becker, as well as, admittedly, a little of her imagination Hubbard’s skill here is to literally bring Becker back to life. The depth of the narrative reveals the tortured and lonely soul of Paula as she struggled to gain the revered status she desired. The reader feels her pain and sacrifice as she fails time and time again to reach her own ridiculously high standards, yet her unwavering belief in her potential to get there shows an admiral level of self-courage and belief. Often lonely, often brave and often selfish the reader gains real insight into Becker’s ambitious and obstinate mind, desiring her success as much as she does.

This novel is an incredible testimony to the tortures and struggles many artists see necessary to put themselves through.

Any artist reading this book will feel a great amount of empathy with Paula. I particularly recommend this to those with an interest in the art world as it captures perfectly the romance and excitement of the industry while sympathetically capturing the dark emotions, poverty and confusion that often follow alongside. With particular nostalgia it delves into the Expressionist’s community of isolated and beautiful Worspswede; thus emphasising the alienation of many of the Expressionist poets and artists and the strong bonds they formed between one another. The use of characters such as Rilke and Rodin shows how the novel is a great exploration of this great cultural movement.

Hubbard’s use of the entirely fictional character of Mathilde creates a deeply emotional resonance within Paula’s story as it is slowly revealed in alternating chapters. As the reader delves into Paula’s secrets and thoughts so is her daughter – now just as vulnerable and lonely herself. Paula’s unsettled mind and the conflicting society of Worpswede become reflected in the unsettling Germany that now exists and the uncertain future that awaits Mathilde. What is never called into question though is the strength and courage of the Becker women. This is an incredibly nuanced and intense work and one which I strongly recommend.

Frances Smithson

To Purchase Girl in WhiteGirl in White
ISBN: 978-1-90709-068-4
Publication date: 1 October 2012
Published by: Cinnamon Press
Paperback 288 pages

198 × 130 mm

Germany, 1933. A young musician, Mathilde, finding herself pregnant by her Jewish lover forced to flee Berlin, returns to the remote village where her mother died days after her birth. There she begins to unravel the story of her life; that of Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn Becker.

Leaving her bourgois family, Paula went to live in a community of artists in Worpswede on the wild north German moors. There, she witnessed the downtrodden lives of peasants, married the older painter Otto Modersohn, a marriage that soon became an emotional and creative prison, and met the young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a complex and intense relationship. Caught between a desire to embrace the new movements in art and the obligations of marriage, she left Otto to pursue her career in Paris with no means of support, Through the eyes of Mathilde, we see Paula's struggle to achieve independence and recognition as an artist.

Paula Modersohn-Becker was a painter ahead of her time, deserving of a place alongside Gwen John and Frida Kahlo. Sue Hubbard’s narrative not only reveals Paula’s vibrant personality and legacy of extraordinay paintings but also gives insight into the corrupted thinking behind the Third Reich, in this moving meditation on love, loss, memory and hope.

"Girl in White" is the extraordinary and moving story of Paula Mendershohn-Becker told from the fictionalised perspective of her daughter Mathilde. Denounced as degenerate by the Nazis, after her death, Sue Hubbard has drawn on Becker’s diaries and paintings to bring to life the artist’s intense relationship with the poet Rilke and her struggle to find a balance between being a painter, wife and mother. Beautifully observed and evocative the novel is as satisfying as it is compelling.

“Imagine a chest of drawers – unopened for a hundred years. Inside small garments carefully folded. A woman today opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories. The chest of drawers belonged to the painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). … (and contain) the secrets of some exceptional, very lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on “modern” German art. …those intimate folds become interstices of History, beyond any notion of what is modern or not. I recommend this haunting book.”
John Berger

Beautifully written and wholly knowledgeable – Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: masterly, moving. ‘Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it.
Fay Weldon

This is a compelling novel for anyone interested in art; and anyone who isn't, but loves good literature
David Rose

Hubbard writes emotionally but never sentimentally. Her piercing visual descriptions make for intense reading. Bringing art to life on the page her words become paintings, her intuitions become vivid realities. I read this book like watching a film, seeing feeling and hearing everything.
Carol Robertson, Artist

I have read writing by Sue Hubbard before (Depth of Field, and various journalism), and I know it's going to be just what I want to read now!
Emma Withers, Artist

Sue Hubbard is a wonderful poet, and her prose has the ability to get under your skin, generating intense feeling. She is also an excellent art critic, and in 'Girl In White' she paints beautiful images with her words, skilfully succeeding in making art itself into a protagonist. A pleasure from start to finish.
Lorenza Garcia, Literary Translator and Editor

Opening Section of Girl in White

Mathilde... and then it begins to snow. As I step from the bus large white flakes land on the rim of my felt hat, soak my lislenstockings, and seep into the leather soles of my new Tbar shoes. It’s the first fall of the year and has come too early. I should have dressed more sensibly, but hadn’t expected this turn; nothing is normal these days. That’s why I had to come now. Soon it might not be possible. I’ve heard the hectoring tones over the airwaves, seen the crowds gathering in the streets, the banners, the torchbearers and the flags.

I can smell it in the air, another war.

It terrifies me, but I can’t think about it now, about what it might mean for the future; mine and this country’s. Today’s my birthday. November 2nd, 1933.
And what else should I do to celebrate the day of my birth other than come back here to visit my mother? Who else should I turn to with my broken heart? On the bus from Bremen I got out my little diary with the black calf cover to count the weeks again, just to be sure. But there’s no mistake.
I thought feeling sick was simply a symptom of grief. It never occurred to me, naïve as it sounds, that there might be some other reason. I’m not even sure when it happened. But this simple fact changes everything. It gives me a reason to go on. After you left there was nothing to live for. I wish more than ever that my mother, that Paula, was around. I’m sure that she’d have understood. Maybe coming here I’ll feel a little closer to her, be able to make some sense of everything that has happened.
As I hurry from the bus turning up the rabbit-fur collar of my coat against the flurries of damp sleet and pull down my felt hat, I pause by a clump of tall birches,

uncertain where to go. I’ve pictured the village so often that now I’m actually here I feel disorientated. From where I’m standing I can look out over the open landscape at the paths and canals that criss-cross the dark moors. The sky is the colour of dishwater and low clouds lie in a heavy blanket over the horizon. I make my way along the cobbled pavement past the cottages with their high thatched roofs and whitewashed facades latticed with black crossbeams. A few lights glow in the afternoon dusk and I stop outside the gate of Heinrich Vogeler’s Barkenhoff, basically a farmhouse like the others, though it’s more isolated in its large garden. I know it, of course, from his painting; the green gate and high windows half hidden by pink rambling roses. I’ve always known it. My father, Otto, bought the painting when we moved away the year after my mother died. I grew up with it, knew the names of all those sitting on the terrace that summer evening talking and playing music. On the left is my mother, with my father Otto, and Clara Westhoff-Rilke. Vogeler’s wife, Martha, is standing on the steps in the middle of the picture flanked by two bay trees. She’s wearing a green satin dress with a white lace collar and leaning against the balustrade, holding a large wolfhound on a leash. On the other side of the terrace are Heinrich Vogeler and his brother Franz, playing a flute. Someone else is playing the fiddle. A group of young friends in a garden on a summer evening seated among roses and potted pink geraniums, reciting poetry, making music, and dreaming dreams.
But when I reach the actual house it looks nothing like the painting. It’s rather run down and a group of whey-faced boys with cropped hair and chapped knees is planting potatoes in the garden. I make my way in the flurrying snow through the village, up the sandy path to the church with the white wooden clock tower. It was here that my mother Paula and her friend Clara climbed


the belfry one balmy August evening and rang the bells out over the sandy mound of the Weyerberg. Thinking there was a fire the frightened villagers ran from the houses clutching their pots, pans and brooms, still dressed in their nightshirts and petticoats. I want to find the little carved cherub and painted orange sunflowers that the pastor demanded from Paula and Clara by way of a penance.
Inside a group of women is decorating the church for a wedding. They look up as I come in, smile, and then turn back to their work. They are tying small bouquets onto the ends of the grey-painted pews; lilies, white roses and ivy. Aluminium buckets and vases half-filled with water stand among the aisles. All the women seem to know each other and chat while they work. The walls are whitewashed, as if the snow has blown in under the door and through the cracks, filling up the little church. The scent of lilies is overpowering. Cut stalks lie scattered on the stone floor in the zinc light. At one end of the knave is a simple carved altar; at the other an organ; its gleaming pipes graded like a set of shinning steel teeth.
I wonder what it would be like to be a bride. What it would have been like if things had been different. And for a moment I can’t think of anything other than that last kiss on the crowded station, snatched amid the stream of embarking and disembarking passengers, the warmth of your mouth, your smell mingling with mine before you pulled away and walked out of my life forever; a slim figure in a long tweed coat and felt hat, carrying your violin.
I watched as long as I could, as you made your way past the kiosk with its hoarding for Manoli cigarettes, past the elderly businessman waiting on the corner in a black coat with an astrakhan collar, past the young soldiers and porters, watched as you walked towards the train that would take you back to your American wife; out


of my arms forever, to safety across the sea. So many leavings and partings; brothers, husbands, lovers, sons, and then the whistle, the high-pitched wail of the train, like a knife in my heart.
I return to that image over and over, rummaging in my brain like someone searching for an old photograph at the back of a drawer. But I’m afraid of spoiling it with overuse, so that it becomes as faded as an over washed dress. Memories are all I have now. It was a risk to say goodbye, let alone snatch that last kiss. But how could I have asked you to stay? I imagine you, now, on that ship, half way across the Atlantic, half way across the world, dancing with your wife in her ivory chenille dress that shows off her thin white shoulders and slender neck with its string of milky pearls. I can see the band in the ballroom. Their white tuxedos and black bow ties, the trombonist’s cheeks puffed out like two balloons: I can’t give you anything but love, baby… and I remember that afternoon when I came for a lesson and you put that record on the phonograph, lowered the needle and took me in your arms, humming those words in my ear, as we danced round your study, watched by the plaster busts of Beethoven, Handel and Chopin.

I came here because I need to make sense of the past. My childhood was spent with my father Otto and with Louise who, to all intents and purposes, acted as my mother, and with Elsbeth and my young half-brothers Ulrich and Christian. Then there were the years of music study in Munich. It was a well regulated, ordered life. How hurt Father would be if he knew that I’d come to Worpswede. I think he’d feel betrayed, as though he hadn’t done enough. Of course he did his best, but what did he know about bringing up a small child? This place belongs to Paula and he never talked of her. That part of his life is a closed chapter. As far as the world’s


concerned he’s Otto Modersohn, the famous artist. No one remembers her. No one remembers Paula Modersohn Becker.
My parents married in May. It was a simple enough wedding. Paula in a white muslin dress, my father, Otto, ten years older and a widower looking, from the photograph I still have, stern and professorial in his dark suit, with his wire glasses and newly trimmed beard. Paula is much shorter; her hair looped simply at the nape of her neck. I’m told by those who knew her, by my aunt Milly and my grandmother, that I look a little like her. It feels strange to think of these family events that preceded my birth. I try to imagine them, but I can’t. In the wedding picture my half-sister, Elsbeth, is holding a small nosegay. She looks very serious and seems to be embracing her role as handmaiden. She spent seven years with my mother; I only had days.
Was Paula happy on her wedding day? I think she must have loved my father then, or at least believed that she did. But how can I possibly know? Perhaps, in the end, all relationships are a compromise. Who knows why anyone else makes the decisions they make; why the squat little man with a receding hairline is the focus of one woman’s passion, or what the blond boy sees in his older married lover? And I’ll never know for sure how much Paula really wanted me; really wanted a child or if, given the choice, she would have stayed on in Paris working in the thick of things and not have come back to Worpswede. In the end, despite me, father, and even Rilke, painting was the most important thing in her life. I treasure these photographs and carry them everywhere. For me my mother will always be defined by the one taken by the photographer who came from Dresden days after I was born, where she stares dark-eyed directly into the camera from her bed, as I, Mathilde, lie in her arms testing out my week old lungs.


The snow is falling faster now, scattering over the well-tended graves like a coating of icing sugar. As I walk through the church porch into the cemetery I hear a crunch on the gravel and look up to see an old man clearing the paths. He has a shaven, bullet-shaped head and wears a coarse potato-coloured jacket. He nods as I pass, then looks down again and goes back to sweeping the falling snow.
It’s very silent, as though the world is slowly being buried. Spruce and small fir trees line the paths. I’m not sure where my mother is as I search among the moss covered tombstones carved with angels and fat-faced cherubs. Many of the headstones are inscribed in old Gothic script. I brush off the falling flakes with my bare hands, but still can’t decipher them and continue making my way up and down the rows, stopping at a pale upright slab and a simple rough-hewn granite stone. Then, as I turn a corner and walk down a path I’ve not walked before, I see it on the far side of the churchyard by the hedge.
How could I have missed it, the carving of a woman with bare breasts draped in Grecian robes, reclining on a mausoleum? A small child sits in her lap. As I go up closer I can see the woman isn’t touching the child, but staring at the dark sky. It’s Paula—my mother—with me, carved in white marble. The mason’s made me look older than I was when she actually died. It feels odd to be part of a memorial to the dead whilst I’m still alive. I don’t know who paid for it, but I doubt it was my father. I stand staring at the statue thinking about the cells dividing within me, cells half-made up of your DNA, and realise that whoever we are, whatever we’ve done we’ll all end up in a place like this. Then I unwrap the white roses I brought from Bremen and lay them in my stone mother’s arms. Soon the fragile petals are covered in snow.


Is that why I came? To fill the space left by you, Daniel, with some memory of her? I want to go back to that yellow house with the red roof where I spent my first weeks. For me it’ll always be more than just a house with a sloped attic, flowered wallpaper and a vase of freshly picked sweet peas on the sill. For me, it’ll always be home.
It’s getting very cold now. I try to retrace my footsteps to the gate, but they’ve disappeared beneath the falling snow. I have to find somewhere to stay before it gets really dark. Tonight, while I sleep in some strange bed, I’ll dream, as I always do, of you.
And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow, I shall begin my search for Paula.

Content and Text © Sue Hubbard 2012

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