Thursday, 5 March 2009

Maria Lassnig

Du oder Ich, 2005
Oil on canvas 202 x 155cm

Serpentine Gallery, London
1st May 2008

This exhibition was quite a surprise for me as although I had seen her work published in magazines, the reproductions did little to convey the power of the large finished paintings. For over 60 years she has been making difficult, complex pictures that attempt to visualize the invisible aspects of her bodily sensations. She calls them “body-awareness” paintings. This naked self portrait of Lassnig is the painting that confronts you as you enter the show.

The life sized image is called Du oder Ich (You or Me), and she sits open legged open mouthed holding two guns, one pointed right at us, the other held in her left hand, at her own head. The eyes hold us with a reptilian unblinking stare and follow you if you try and edge away. One false move and whatever is killing her will kill us instead. Given that Lassnig painted this picture when she was 86, this defiant take on sex and death maybe implies that for her continued survival we have to go first.

The life-sized figure is centrally placed and floats on the large canvas. The fact that there is no background focuses our attention on the figure and ensures that we are not distracted from the introspective self examination. A blue-green shadow hovers around the torso and arms projecting the figure forwards. The rapidly executed brush work follows the form and the colours seem to be mixed on the canvas. I find the pastel palette quite nauseous and certainly contribute to the sense of unease I feel in front of the painting. There is something about the painting that reminds me of Egon Schiele that could be the pose or the large unpainted area around the figure.

Clearly she still feels that painting has something to say about the human condition, and many of her paintings have a humorous dimension, even when the sentiment is as bleak as this one! Perhaps for this reason she continues to work from the figure rather than use photographs, even persuading her neighbours to pose naked for her when she needs a model. The titles are well chosen and consistently added something to the image depicted. Excellent examples being “Adam and Eve in Underwear” catches the couple entangled on the floor, naked from the waist up, and “Madonna of the Pastries” with an ashen faced naked woman sitting behind a table of cakes. Consequently the viewer is engaged directly through the paintings’ physical presence and implied narratives of the subject reinforced by the titles.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Never before I heard of this Austrian painter- I have to admit: a provoking, shoking painting, particularly when I realize that Maria Lassnig painted herself as old woman in the age of 86 years- in opposite to all our imaginations of a worthy grandma-age and our medial wishes of female beauty! Your informations and your interpretation are very carefull. "A humorous dimension"- yes, that could be as there is a known Austrian/Viennese tradition of dark-melancholic feeling and humour and a special kind of art, being in a narcism-love with decay and death (in literature e.g. Georg Kreisler, Der Tod, das muss ein Wiener sein; Jandl; Schnitzler...), and the 'awareness of body"/self-portraits could hint to Sigmund Freud...- or I think of the distorted, often ugly bodies of Egon Schiele! Extraordinary is that a female painter of her generation has the courage to pose naked and to paint herself in such a pitiless way to show the human being in her vulnerable character, her desires and sorrows..? The mouth is closed and she looks bitter, disappointed, angry...- a sad look which my awake some compassion or - perhaps- a fine- silent smiling!
    Yesterday I read a review about the mostly lax British reception of Ch. Roche's book "Wetlands"- another kind of "body-awareness" (Körpergefühl) in our times! Maria Lassnig might say for sure: "Why not"!

  2. I think you have done a better job of describing the emotion in the painting than I have! I totally missed the closed tight mouth, and yes she does look bitter and disappointed.

    I don't know Wetlands, but I have just read a review and it is the biggest seller on Amazon anywhere in the world. Guess I will have to add it to my reading list!