Interview with Sue Hubbard about Girl in White
Elatia Harris 3 Quarks guest blog
‘The poet and art critic, Sue Hubbard, has written a richly layered book about Paula Modersohn-Becker, … In Hubbard’s moving imagining of Paula’s story, she creates a believable, parallel tale about Paula’s daughter Mathilde, a violinist.’
Sipora Levy Jewish Chronicle 27th February 2013
‘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.’
‘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.’
“In art,” the Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) declared, “one is usually totally alone with oneself.” For a female artist in the early 20th century, such aloneness was radical in itself. It is Modersohn-Becker’s radical aloneness, as artistic pioneer and independent woman, which particularly fascinates Sue Hubbard in her new novel, a fictionalised account of the artist’s life.
During her most productive period – her last stay in Paris – she is destitute, and repeatedly compelled to appeal for financial aid from others, including her estranged husband. Ultimately, she returns from Paris to her husband in Germany, forced by history into this “compromise”. As one character puts it, “I don’t believe the world is yet ready for a woman artist to make it alone.
Yet it is precisely this “aloneness” that is a prerequisite for art. “Art without pain, without sacrifice, without loneliness,” says Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Modersohn-Becker’s lovers, is “impossible”. It is the impossibility of Modersohn-Becker’s position – torn between the loneliness of art and enforced selflessness of her role as wife – that destroys her. After returning to her husband, she falls pregnant, and dies shortly after childbirth.
The power of Hubbard’s novel for contemporary readers is in its distillation of dilemmas which, of course, are still pressing for women today. As Rilke wrote of Modersohn-Becker in his great poem “Requiem”, it is her spirit which, of all his dead friends, most seems to haunt the future.
Jonathan Taylor The Independent
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.’
Francis Smithson Cardiff Studentmedia 28 November 2012
‘I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today… (click here to read the full review)’
Anna Seba 22 October 2012
Published 1 October, 2012
Paperback 288 pages
198 × 130 mm