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  • I Am Echo:Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Aesthetics of Stillness
  • Therese Ahern Augst (bio)

I traveled seventeen hours and now I am living in the clamor of this big city. Everything rushes and swirls around me in a damp and foggy atmosphere. It’s filthy here, very filthy—an inward filth, way down deep inside. Sometimes it makes me shudder. It seems to me as if I needed more strength than I have to live here, a brutal strength. But I only sometimes feel that way. At other times I feel blissfully clear and serene. I feel a new world arising in me.

(Ich fuhr siebzehn Stunden und nun lebe ich im Gewühle dieser großen Stadt. Alles saust und hastet um mich her in neblichter, feuchter Atmosphäre. Viel, viel Schmutz, innerlich, tief innerlich. Mir schaudert manchmal. Mir ist, als gehörte mehr als meine Kraft dazu, hier zu leben, eine brutale Kraft. Das ist mir aber nur manchmal so. Zu andern Zeiten wird es wonnig klar und mild in mir. Ich fühle eine neue Welt in mir erstehen.)

The young German painter Paula Becker stands before the window of her room in Paris, where she spent six months studying art at the Académie Colarossi in early 1900 (fig. 1). The “new world” she sensed at once within and outside of herself—along with intimations of the “brutal strength” that the big city demands—both come to light in this self-representation and its visual context. The precise frontal view, jutting chin and slight downward glance from veiled eyelids formulate a challenge to the viewer, made playful by the schoolgirlish appearance of the subject. Sense organs are prominent: eyes, ears, and nostrils are [End Page 617] enlarged and exaggerated, the ears sticking out sideways as if folded forward in the attempt to take in the chaotic clamor of Paris street life.1 The entire facial structure suggests intense receptivity to the world outside the window, a world of limitless possibilities figured by the houses’ apparent continuity beyond the immediate frame of reference. Despite Paula Becker’s ambivalent attitude toward the modern metropolis—her impression, at once, of its energy and its soullessness—her readiness to drink in the experience is on full display.

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Fig 1.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-portrait before view of Paris houses through a window, 1900, on cardboard, 38 x 28.5 cm, private collection, Bremen (courtesy Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner, Bremen/Berlin).

Yet the subject does not turn her attention to the view outside the window; in a conceit common to the tradition of self-portraiture, Paris remains behind her back while her concentration is directed inward. The urban vibrancy of Paris functions as a backdrop for self-reflection; the figure of the artist in the painting thematizes individual perception as both determining and determined by external stimuli, by the work of the [End Page 618] senses in the world outside the window. On May 4, 1900, several months after the first journal entry in the “big city,” Becker writes a more reassuring letter to her parents that expresses this development:

I am beginning to master Paris. I am finding myself and my inner peace again … Impressions are becoming more singular, one gets closer to them and can absorb them in a collected [gesammelt] way.2

(Ich fange an, Paris zu überwinden. Ich finde mich selbst wieder und meine innere Ruhe … Die Eindrücke werden einzelner, man rückt ihnen näher und kann sie gesammelt in sich aufnehmen.)3

The mechanism of “überwinden” (“to master, to triumph over”) suggests a kind of training regimen with a double benefit: by gathering external impressions, one by one, Paula Becker finds herself and “inner peace” while prevailing over the challenges of Paris in the bargain. What the eyes see, what the other sense organs take in is less important than the process of taking in. Rather than representing what is perceived, the image depicts the act of perceiving itself.

A few months later, Paula Becker met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had come to Worpswede, the tiny northern German artists’ colony, in August...


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