Does any image say primal love more than this powerful painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker? It is an artwork that includes not just children but also beautifully portrays the love that adults, parents and carers bestow on the young and vulnerable of our species.
It is said that children require love above all things. And that is what we see in the image above, Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Mother And Child Reclining.
Mother and child face each other, completely oblivious to us, the viewer. This is not a traditional reclining nude, staged to titillate the male gaze. This is a woman’s sensuality and animal-like love for her offspring – primal and potent.
The monumental life-size figure curls around her child, offering warmth. There is a sense of protection here, in the drawn-up legs of the mother. There is tenderness in the gentle cradling of the head.
There is nothing here to signify time or place. The mother and child are unclothed, there is no backdrop, no hairstyle to tell us who or what they are – the world is shrunk to their circle of intimacy. They could be ancients in a cave, she could be the new mother next door.
Modersohn-Becker often painted children, partly because they were easily accessible in the family homes around her studio. They were real, unsentimental. She was born in Germany and was one of the most important members of the early Expressionist movement, although she sold only three paintings in her lifetime. She was the first female painter to experiment with nude self-portraits.
Just after finishing Mother and Child Reclining in 1906, Modersohn-Becker wrote to her sister,
I am becoming something – I am living the most intensely happy period of my life.
Paula Modersohn-Becker quoted in Artland.
Sadly, she was to die just a year later.
Modersohn Becker had given birth to a daughter on 2 November 1907. She was prescribed total bed rest for two weeks, something often imposed on new mothers at that age, but now known to be risky. On rising, she suffered a fatal embolism.
Momentarily she had held both of her passions – her art and her child. She was thriving and passionate. Baby Mathilde was just 18 days old when her mother died suddenly, and without warning, on 20 November 1907. Modersohn-Becker’s last words were “What a pity.”
In these days when we read of poverty, neglect, child slavery and child prostitution, let us remember that each of us has something to offer to the children of the world. You don’t need to be a parent to know that we owe food and shelter, security and safety, education and good health to all the children on our planet. And, of course, love.