Maria Lassnig

What does a stiff neck look like and what colour is it? It is exactly this quest for images depicting inner feelings that pervades the entire oeuvre of the artist, Maria Lassnig - an artistic output for which she has been awarded a Golden Lion at the 55th Biennale in Venice. The Deichtorhallen Exhibition Centre in Hamburg is showing a selection of her work that spans seven decades.

Maria Lassnig, Dreifaches Selbstporträt/New Self, 1972; Maria Lassnig, Dreifaches Selbstporträt/New Self, 1972; | © Courtesy of the Artist, Photo: UMJ / N. Lackner “An inhabited body shell” is an expression Maria Lassnig uses quite often when referring to her body. It may sound strange, but, when viewed from an overall perspective, it also makes it quite clear that the artist is not striving to depict free dance in painted form. The fact, however, that this artist from Austria, who was born in 1919, has been painting physical experiences, like pain, for decades could well lead to this misunderstanding. The realm she is moving more closely towards is, however, that of scientific research rather than the maelstrom of emotional sensitivities.

Seven decades of painting

Maria Lassnig Maria Lassnig | © Sepp Dreissinger The exhibition at the Deichtorhallen Exhibition Centre in Hamburg is called Der Ort der Bilder (The Location of Pictures) and offers an excellent opportunity to get to know the art of Maria Lassnig. Over a hundred works spanning the years 1945 to 2012 have been put together by the curator, Günther Holler-Schuster. As the preparations for the exhibition, of which a smaller version was first shown at the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria, coincided with the compilation of a catalogue of the artist’s works, he was granted unrestricted access to the artist’s studio.

In close cooperation with her, he was able to come up with a selection of exhibits, some of which had never been shown before. This is in fact all the more remarkable, as Maria Lassnig is well known for not wanting to be separated from her works - no matter how short the time. Peter Pakesch, the curator of the Neue Galerie in Graz and one of the artist’s confidants, reported that when she was once asked to sign a loan agreement, she crossed out all the return dates and added the words “too long”.
View of catalogue: Maria Lassnig, Der Ort der Bilder

Inner Realities

The close connection between the person and her work is also substantiated by the large number of self-portraits. Among these, Maria Lassnig also includes her informal pictures from the 1950s. In her 1956 painting Selbstportrait/Abstrakter Kopf (Self-Portrait/Abstract Head) she superimposed a collection of geometric shapes in various shades of brown, blue and green onto a dirty, dark-green background.
Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt/Abstrakter Kopf, 1956; Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt/Abstrakter Kopf, 1956; | © Courtesy of the Artist, Photo: UMJ / N. Lackner Commenting on her painting, Lassnig once said that for her the only really real thing were the physiological feelings that play out in the shell of her body, “a feeling of pressure when sitting or lying, feelings of tension and physical spatial expansion - fairly difficult things to depict”. The more trained the eye becomes when scrutinising her works, the more willing the observer is to feel, to perceive, the “abstract head”.

Lassnig’s extraordinary sense of colour was already prevalent in her early works. Then in the 1960s some very distinct, figurative touches were added: machines with human features, science-fiction-like extensions of the body, along with missing limbs. Due to her analysis of the basic conditions for human existence an affinity has often been suggested between Lassnig and the English painter, Francis Bacon. With regard to colourfulness and line management, however, a comparison with the work of the American artist, Philip Guston, would be more pertinent from an aesthetic point of view.

Performance in pictorial form

view of the exhibition view of the exhibition | © Henning Rogge / Deichtorhallen Not all the pictures at the comprehensive retrospective in Hamburg win the observer over in the same way; this is what makes these brilliant works all the more enthralling. Some interesting references to performance art have been established - at a time when her Vienna colleagues announced their exit from the medium of pictorial art and allowed the audience to take part in their physical existence, Lassnig attempted to express very similar themes in her painting. She was however living in New York during the heyday of the Viennese Actionism movement - she did not return to Vienna until 1980, when - at the age of 60 - she was awarded a professorship at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

Golden Lions

view of exhibition view of exhibition | © Henning Rogge / Deichtorhallen It was not however until the 1990’s that the artist, who was born in Carinthia, Austria, in 1919, attained some degree of international renown. Why she had to wait so long for some well-earned recognition is really quite obvious, “Like all the other female artists of that time she was deprived of a fast and simple career,” was the unusually clear way it was also formulated in the preface of the catalogue for the exhibition in Hamburg - a woman and, what is more, one who confronts her audience with subjects that have an explicitly feminine connotation. In this respect her biography has a good deal in common with that of the second “grand dame” of the world of art, Louise Bourgeois. After many years of being ignored Bourgeois was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the ripe old age of 88.

Despite having numerous friends in the realm of art and important supporters of her work Maria Lassnig suffered from the lack of attention, equally as she does in the meantime from the subsequent attempts to instrumentalise her, which she sometimes finds sinister. At the opening of her exhibition in Munich in 2010 she succeeded in clearly defining this dilemma as well as her great focus on physical experience in a fairly nonchalant way - the artist, in visibly high spirits, wore a necktie that had been made from yellow barrier tape with the words “Police Line - Do Not Cross” printed on it.

Maria Lassnig: Der Ort der Bilder (The Location of Pictures)
Deichtorhallen Hamburg
21st June until 8th September 2013