I’m sitting in the dark of a movie theatre, immersed in images, a depiction of a life lived in the century before this. Paintings, the talk of art and of life. Faded photographs mixed with images of paintings radiating with color. It’s a movie about Otto Modersohn, a German painter, made by his great-grandson*. A movie about his art, but just as much about his wives and their art. These women, their stories, they resound in me, touch me to the core of my being. Their desire, their longing, I can feel it. Their journal entries reach out from across the oceans of time and grab me. I am mesmerized. The past becomes alive. These women become alive.
His second wife, Paula Modersohn-Becker, a brilliant artist, more significant than her husband as the judgement of posterity would show. She wants to be free, she wants to live without the ties of a marriage, and he tries to meet her half-way. He let’s her go to Paris, let’s her leave their life behind. In 1906 that decision must have been more than radical, for both of them. But then he goes after her. Maybe it was a mutual agreement as stated in the movie, but when I hear the lines from her diary about her burning desire to be free and then the later realization that “she wasn’t made to stand alone” I can’t help but wonder. Was it resignation or maybe pity, or a combination of both, that made her ask him to come and join her? She gets pregnant and they leave Paris to go back home. She gives birth to a daughter and then passes away. What does that mean? I don’t know. But I know what it’s like to want to be free, to want to get rid of the emotional ties, the shackles of love that hold you prisoner in a life you don’t want to live. It hurts so bad. And sitting there in the movie theatre I can really feel her pain. The movie has me in a firm grip. I’m enchanted by all these stories, these women and their struggle to maintain the balance between society’s expectations and their own dreams.
The story continues, he weds again, another painter. An image of one of her paintings, flowers in a vase, appears on the screen and suddenly my grandmother is with me. I don’t know if it’s the genealogical aspect of this film that does it, but suddenly the painting on the screen before me merges into her paintings. Always flowers. Naturalist in style. But so delicate, so detailed. I don’t know when she did them and I don’t know how many there actually were. I only ever saw two. The two that was on the wall in her bedroom. There must have been more, possibly other motives as well, but I never found out. I think I asked her about it, but she never really answered. And now it’s too late. She’s gone. And slowly the movie falls back to second place, my attention is elsewhere, on my own history.
My grandmother wasn’t a painter, she was a maid and then she was a housewife and a mother. Then she became a widow and a nurse. She was alone for the rest of her life. I’m not sure she had a happy marriage, I’ve been told my grandfather was a difficult man. I never met him, he died long before I was born. She almost never talked about him and when she did it was hard to tell how she felt about him. Or maybe I was too young to really understand. She didn’t really talk about herself, women of her generation rarely did. I think she was a good mother, she devoted a lot of time to her children, especially her youngest son, my fathers little brother. My family was closer with my mothers parents, we spent a lot of time with them. They were my everyday grandparents. And of course I loved them, especially my grandfather. He was an amazing man, a wonder of kindness and unconditional love. But it was my other grandmother that was my source of magic. The times we went to visit her, or when she came to visit us, always felt special, like going on an adventure of sorts. And every time she would tell me stories, probably because I begged her to, but I think she actually enjoyed it too
As a child I loved stories, mostly I got them from books, from people reading to me, but with my grandmother it was different. She would tell me stories that weren’t written down. Fairy tales or stories from her life. And sometimes they would merge, become speculative, like a parallel reality. Her voice, her words, the worlds she let me enter, it always felt like magic. I don’t really know where she got all the stories, the fairy tales, I suspect some where stories she herself had heard as a child, but I think she also made a lot of them up. Sometimes when I would ask her to tell me a story again, she had forgotten it. Maybe that’s what made it so precious, that it was all about the moment. And I was a great audience, I would hang on her ever word and I would rage against anyone trying to disturb us. Everyone used to smile at this, at my obsession, but I don’t think they really understood the extent of it. When I was listening to her I wasn’t even there, I was in another world, in another universe, another reality, and every time someone talked to us that would tear me back to the normal reality. A reality that was so painfully inferior to the one she was weaving. Those moments where the best parts of my childhood, the most precious moments, the really formative ones. No, my grandmother wasn’t an artist in the eyes of the world, but she was in mine. She was the source of magic.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever realized just how much she meant to me, just how important she was. But she’s the reason I do this. She’s the reason I write. The stories she told me awoke something in me, a burning desire, a love. They opened up a new universe; my own universe unlocked by her. And I wish I had told her. I wish I had known. But I didn’t really understand until it was too late. It wasn’t clear to me until she was gone. There’s so much I wish I could have told her, and so much I wish I had asked her. I wish I had asked her more about the art, if she ever dreamed of being an artist or a writer. I don’t even know if she ever wrote any of all her stories down. There’s so little I know about her, about where she came from, about her family. And this movie makes it so clear to me. Highlights all my unanswered questions about my own past.
My sister and I used to talk about our grandmother, speculate about her and what her life must have been like. And we also talked about how fantastic she was, how much we loved her. And I think in a way she knew, but I’m not sure she understood just how much she meant to us. What she represented. There is a bond between all of us. A bond that goes from her, to my father, to us. Art. It’s what we all have in common. The magic that flowed through us all, that still flows in those of us that are left – my father and me. And I feel that bond with him too, but it’s different than the one I had with them. The two most important women in my life – My grandmother who taught me about stories and parallel universes and with my sister who taught me about freedom.
My sister was in a lot of ways my role model. I tried to tell her once, but I’m not sure I was really able to explain it. Or maybe she didn’t believe me. I suppose it’s difficult to see your life from the outside and I don’t think she saw the same things I did. She was 17 years older, already an adult when I got to know her, or at least she was to me. She painted and travelled, got married and divorced, moved to the big city and failed at love, just like me. She was the one that taught me how to be free, who showed me that you are allowed to shape your reality as you want. She gave me the lead, she showed me the way. She taught me that life doesn’t have to fit in the mold, that you can actually shape the mold itself, you can shape life. And I wish I could tell her that this effort was what mattered, her effort, the display of resistance, because just trying and knowing that you actually tried is all the success you really need. And she taught me that through her example. I wish I could tell her that. But it’s too late.
If I had known she was going to die so soon I would have shown her more of my writing, showed her the manifestations of our bond, the traces of our grandmother. If I had known how little time we had left I would have made more of an effort to tell her, to explain to her, just how much she meant to me. But I didn’t know. No one did. You never do. Even though death is actually the only thing we can really be certain of. We all die. Life is impermanent and our encounters are transient, fleeting. So desperately short. People die. Loved ones. They leave to never come back. All the questions will remain unanswered, all the words will remain unspoken.
I am sure Otto Modersohn felt the same way when Paula passed away, that it was too soon, that there was so much he didn’t ask her yet, so much he didn’t tell her. And I am sure that’s not the real message of this movie, not the intended one, but to me it is. Life is so desperately short and fugacious. We never have enough time. And when our loved ones die we are left only with the memories and mountains of questions and unspoken words. If I believed in heaven I could say that I will meet them again, but I don’t. I know they are gone and I’m left with all my questions and all the things I never said. These two women who were so instrumental in shaping who I am and what I do. I still feel the bond between us, and I still have the gifts they gave me. I hold on to them in my heart, through my art. But I just wish we’d had a little more time.
* The movie is beautiful and if you have a chance you should really watch it: “So weit und so groß” (2010) by Carlo Modersohn.