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A brief career of personal struggle, rich accomplishment

The 20th century has produced a significant number of truly remarkable artists whose careers were cut short by premature death. Of these, Schiele, Modigliani, Marc, and Gris may be the best known, but there are three women artists of uncommon stature and quality who must also be included.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Liubov Popova (1889-1924), and Eva Hesse (1936-1970) are among the most original and forward-looking creative spirits this century has so far produced. Each made a genuine contribution to modernist art, and each still needs to be recognized more fully for what she has done.

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Modersohn-Becker, in particular, should be more generally acknowledged as the rare painter she was, and as the impressive modernist she insisted on being. But even that is not enough. It must also be made very clear that her major accomplishments spanned only seven short years and that, as a woman, she had to do battle almost every moment of her adult life just to be permitted to paint as she pleased.

To establish her reputation more fully as an important artist, however, we need more exhibitions of her work. A few articles here and there, and her inclusion in major exhibitions devoted to German Expressionist art, aren't enough. We need to see her work in greater quantity and depth, to see how she drew, handled paint, composed - even how she worked up her few excellent etchings.

The Galerie St. Etienne here has provided us with just such an exhibition in the form of a general survey of her work entitled ''Paula Modersohn-Becker: Germany's Pioneer Modernist.'' Its 100 paintings, drawings, and prints constitute the largest exhibition of her work ever assembled in the United States, and provide us with a rare insight into the talent, imagination, and courage of this remarkable artist.

Visitors to this exhibition, however, will find no huge, jolting canvases, no overwhelming painterly explosions such as those usually encountered in shows devoted to the other major Expressionists. In their stead, they will find smaller, gentler, more warmly human documents that speak in a softer and more compassionate voice.

These paintings are no less uncompromising and direct for all that, however, and neither are they sentimental or sweet. Modersohn-Becker may have focused her attentions more on the family-oriented aspects of everyday life, on images of motherhood, children playing, and housewifely activities, but never as devices for eliciting sympathy, nor for purposes of formal evasion.

In contemporary terms, she was a ''tough'' painter, meaning she never permitted her sympathy for her subjects to interfere with her primary function as fashioner of forms and creator of images. To her, art came first. Even her warmest studies of infants sleeping or older children playing are as crisply designed and as simply and boldly structured as her severely frontal self-portraits or her monumental still lifes.

This profound respect for art, while it contributed greatly to her importance as an artist, wreaked havoc with her private life. This was particularly true since she was a woman living in a time and place that accorded little or no respect to female independence, and hardly any more to a similar spirit in art.

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Although her marriage to Otto Modersohn, a painter of considerable talent, but of a more conservative nature than hers, was intended to help rather than hinder her work, it soon became apparent that quite the opposite was the case. She felt cramped and intimidated by the secondary role - even as artist - expected of her as a wife, and by the fact that her husband showed increasingly little understanding or sympathy for what she was trying to do as an artist.

By 1903 she could stand it no longer and fled to Paris, where she worked for a few months before returning to Germany. Things only got worse, however, and she fled to Paris two more times, in 1905 and 1906 - the last time, she thought, for good.

Her husband felt different, however, and before long she had agreed that he should join her in Paris. Things apparently improved between them. By the time they both returned home in the spring of 1907, Paula was pregnant. In November of that year she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, but she herself survived that birth by only 20 days.

For those who wish to see see some very special art I recommend this exhibition. It will remain on view at the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through Jan. 7.

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