Cinnamon Press, £8.99. Order for £8.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Girl in White, By Sue Hubbard
Thursday 29 November 2012
"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.
In Girl in White, Modersohn-Becker's life is portrayed as a series of struggles to assert independence, or "aloneness", freeing herself from the conventions of German art, from financial dependence on men, and from the binds of family life. In all these struggles, she is only half-successful, never satisfied that her paintings quite attain her aesthetic vision.
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 is the author of the novel 'Entertaining Strangers' (Salt) and the memoir 'Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself' (Granta)
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain