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A home to artists

Worpswede, in northwestern Germany, nurtured modernist Paula Modersohn-Becker

click to enlarge Jugendstu-style exterior of Paula Modersohn-Becker museum.
  • Jugendstu-style exterior of Paula Modersohn-Becker museum.

By Alison Appelbe

Situated on a moody heath known as “the devil’s moor” or Teufelsmoor, the village of Worpswede, in northwestern Germany, is everything a village should be.

Houses have exteriors of patterned brick and thatched roofing. Here and there an original barn survives. The hilltop church, the Zionskirche, although built in the 1750s of baroque and rococo design, looks more like a simple Quaker chapel.

The village is filled with artist studios — and avant-garde goldsmith shops. A former train station in the early 20 th century Art Nouveau architectural style is now an excellent restaurant called the Worpsweder Bahnhof. And a real train, the Moor Express, connects Worpswede and the city of Bremen, to the south, on the weekends.

Worpswede (pronounced “vorps-vey-da”) has a history of artistic achievement.

Though said to have existed here since the Bronze Age, what is now a sizeable village took shape in the 1700s, when colonizers drained the bog and began to eke out a living as farmers. A century later, in 1884, a shopkeeper’s daughter invited a young German artist of the Art Nouveau named Fritz Mackensen to visit her village.

Entranced by the landscape — its barren ruggedness, subtle colours and huge sky — Mackensen settled down. By the late 1800s, he had attracted and established a small colony of artists that would ultimately gain international importance.

Today, Worpswede is widely known for having nurtured an important group of artists, and particularly the early German modernist Paula Modersohn-Becker. This year marks the 100 th anniversary of Modersohn-Becker’s death at age 31. Galleries here, and in Bremen, are marking the event with exhibits that run until early 2008.

My discovery of Paula Modersohn-Becker began back in Bremen — in a pedestrian alley that runs off the main square or Altstadt, over which looms the 1,200-year-old St. Petri Cathedral and a Rathaus (town hall) that was built in 1400.

The redesign of this alley, called the Böttcherstrasse, was commissioned in 1931 by Ludwig Roselius, an entrepreneur who made his fortune introducing filtered coffee to the world. The 110-metre long Böttcherstrasse is now lined with mostly brick buildings in the Art Nouveau (or German Jugendstil) architectural style.

(It also features, on one building wall, an unusual glockenspiel with rotating panels, also of Jugendstil design, on the theme of navigators who crossed the Atlantic).

Some of the buildings, and the clock, were designed by Bernhard Hoetger — one of the half-dozen artists who, with poet Rainer Maria Rilke, joined the Worpswede artist collective. The most eye-catching among them is the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, housed in a brick structure of rounded edges, decorative relief and wrought-iron touches.

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