Who is Maria Lassnig?

Photo of Maria Lassnig painting in her studio, Vienna 1982

Who is she?

Maria Lassnig was born in Austria in 1919, and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during the Second World War. After visiting Paris in the 1950s, she developed an interest in different forms of abstraction, in which artists use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve their effect. She experimented with some of these styles herself, and returned to live in Paris between 1961 and 68.

With self-portraiture a lifelong obsession, early in her career she produced drawings referred to as ‘introspective experiences’, and later, coined the term ‘body awareness’. The artist depicted the parts of her body that she actually felt as she worked, instead of painting only what she could see: ‘The only true reality is my feelings, played out within the confines of my body’, as she put it.

Despite what sounds initially like an introspective, unbending approach, Lassnig’s style evolved during her long career; she would also experiment with making animated films, which complemented the themes of her painting. Often reflecting external issues, her work commented on the nature of woman’s role in society, technological advances and conflict, all through the prism of self-portraiture.

How did she confront the challenge of working in the era of film and the photograph?

Her originality was in-part defined by her resistance to photography. She was wholly committed to working directly from life. In the 1990s she called artists using photography ‘prosthesis artists’ and questioned the quality of any painting done from such a source.

What are her key works?

Maria Lassnig, Expressive Self-portrait 1945

Expressive Self‑Portrait 1945 was made in the year of Lassnig’s graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna this painting radically departs from Nazi-approved academic realism, which dominated the academy at the time. It is an early indication of the interrogation of the limitations of painting and self-representation that came to define Lassnig’s entire career. As in many of her later paintings, the artist depicted herself at work. The canvas functions as a mirror: Lassnig holds a brush in her left hand despite the fact that she was right-handed. This tension between reality and appearances is crucial for her thinking about self-portraiture.

Maria Lassnig, Double Self-portrait with Camera (Doppelselbstporträt mit Kamera) 1974

Since the 1960s, Lassnig had introduced fictional canvases into some of her paintings. She employs this technique in Double Self‑Portrait with Camera 1974, holding a film camera up towards her eye. The text on her sweatshirt is reversed as if seen in a mirror. This canvas within the canvas represents an ‘objective’ image of the artist as seen via the lens of a camera. Hunched in front of the canvas is an identically dressed figure. Her face, however, is deformed into the concertina of a box camera, representing how the artist perceived herself from within and addressing her thoughts about artists using photography. The realism produced by the camera is contrasted with the image of inner sensations typical for Lassnig’s ‘body-awareness’ paintings.

What the critics say…

Lassnig’s paintings are experiments, mostly in seeing how far you can go.

Adrian Searle, Art Critic

It would be hard to think of a greater artist of whom so little, at least in Britain, is known.

Laura Cumming, Art Critic

Comfortable her work isn’t; but then, that is rather its point.

Charles Darwent, Art Critic

That queasy emotional cocktail – vulnerability, powerlessness, fear – was the mainstay of Lassnig’s art.

Gilda Williams, Art Critic 

Lassnig in quotes…

I confront the canvas as if naked, devoid of intention, devoid of a plan, without a model, without photography and I let things happen. I do work from a starting point, though, rooted in the insight that the only real things are the feelings unfolding within the shell that is my body: psychological sensations, a feeling of pressure when sitting or lying, feelings of tension and special expansion – aspects that are difficult to put on a canvas.

[The body] is more or less the most difficult subject to paint. Something you don’t actually see.

Embarrassment is a challenge. I want to paint things that are uncomfortable.

See also

Tate Liverpool Exhibition

Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms

18 May – 18 Sep 2016

Learn something new about a British modern master