How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Kasia Redzisz and Lauren Barnes (eds.), Maria Lassnig (London: Tate, 2016)
Beatrice von Bormann, Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Antonia Hoerschelmann (eds.), Maria Lassnig: Ways of Being (Amsterdam?: Hirmer, 2019)

I first came across the work of Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) at Tate Liverpool, doubled with an exhibition of Francis Bacon. In that case, I think Bacon won, perhaps because I have a sense of how to read his work. And I was bunking off from a conference, so perhaps I didn’t give her a sufficient chance. Certainly, I didn’t write her off. Three years later, I was in Amsterdam to do the Rembrandt blockbuster, repeating the Van Gogh, and then going to the Stedelijk Museum where, in my ignorance, I didn’t know there a huge retrospective of her work, which was to go onto the Albertina (and I don’t think I saw any of her work in Vienna).

Vienna made me familiar with the works of many artists active between 1900 and 1938, and it needs to be noted that Lassnig was born in Kappel am Krappfeld, Carinthia, Austria, in 1919, so in a context where there was increasing anti-Semitism and totalitarianism in the run up to the Anschluss. Having trained as a teacher, she decided to become an artist and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She already faced some problems, because of the nature of the teaching and what was acceptable styles in art. She founded the Hundsgruppe (Dog Pack) in 1947 with Arnulf Rainer (who became an influence), Josef Mikl, Wolfgang Hollegha and other artists, experimenting with abstract expressionism and action painting. Various grants allowed her to travel to Paris with Rainer, where they organised an exhibition and met the surrealist André Breton.

Lassnig’s style was to depict “body consciousness” (Körpergefühlmalerei) – self-portraits that depict the body parts and organs she was aware of whilst painting. It is hardly naturalistic in style, and sometimes it merges with the background. But whilst she made connections in Vienna, she moved to Paris – where she was hardly more understood.

In 1968, she moved to New York, but she was a woman and she wasn’t making the right kind of art. She took a left term into film making, after studying animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1970, providing her own drawings and paintings in Körpergefühlmalerei style for Baroque Statues (1970-74), Iris (1971), Chairs (1971), Selfportrait (1971), Shapes (1972), Couples (1972), Palmistry (1973) and Art Education (1976). She cofounded Women/Artists/Filmmakers Inc in 1974, which included artists, filmmakers and dancers Susan Brockman, Doris Chase, Martha Edelheit, Silvianna Goldsmith, Nancy Kendall, Carolee Schneemann, Rosalind Schneider, Olga Spiegel, Doris Totten Chase and Alida Walsh. This period is clearly vital to her output – both exhibition catalogues contain chapters on it.

But in 1980 she was appointed professor of painting at the Vienna University of Applied Arts and represented Austria at the 1980 Venice Biennale with VALIE EXPORT. At last, she was getting the recognition in her own country, and exhibitions in London and New York. She continued her portraits, partly experimenting with hypericonic paintings, paintings containing paintings. She combined her own body with objects, including domestic and electronic technology, the latter continuing an interest in science fiction she had explored since the 1960s. There was a diversion into painting footballers – probably using newspaper images – and the horrors of war. She kept active, documenting her aging body, almost to the end.

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You can see the science fiction at work in the Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait (1995) and, er, Large Science Fiction Self-Portrait (1996), the former appearing to include a VR headset, the latter some kind of antenna.

Her Woman Power (1979) seems like a statement of intent and ambition – with a degree of ironisation – as it appropriates a pulp sf image reminiscent of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Woman Power

And always there are the self-portraits with animals – tigers, ferrets, cats (of course), even a guinea pig and a ghostly duck. The animals perhaps bring a metaphoric weight with them, most strongly in her version of Laocoön, Woman Laocoön (1976), a loose self-portrait complete with seemingly endless, sinuous snake. Here there is not the pain and danger of the original, more aloofness or indifference.

And there’s the striking You or Me (2005), another fearless nude, with guns pointed at us and her own head. Like Schiele before her, she depicts her body with a halo, but here blue rather than white, as her contorted body fades into the canvas. Here we go back to another astonishing self-portraitist, but – if you can forgive the phrase – she holds her own.

You or Me

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Finally reading the Stedelijk catalogue and rereading the Liverpool one, I’m nervous that the latter will fall apart. Even the day I bought it, and sat reading it outside the Catherine Street Caffè Nerd, it was beginning to fall apart. Now the signatures seem to want to escape, to be reframed.

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