Thoughts about Maria Lassnig

April 2017

Maria Lassnig was a painter. She was born in 1919 in Kappel am Krappfeld, a small town in Corinthia, Austria and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Nazi annexed Vienna during World War II. Lassnig said she was a ‘diligent’ student, and to understand what she means by that, pay attention to how she talks about Francis Bacon. The artist died in 2014, also in Vienna.

I first came across Lassnig’s work on a 2006 Frieze magazine cover. This article is about the painting on that cover and the interview that went with it, as well as the current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Gallery. The Frieze painting, Sprachgitter (Language grid), 1999, was of a skull-like face with sunken, corrugated cheeks looking like skinned ribcages, and an aghast mouth and chin truncated by what looked like a cheese-grater. The eyes of the face were wide-open, between surprise and horror like in Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. You’d be forgiven for thinking this description lies within the order of teenage gore à la Eddie the Head from Iron Maiden’s album covers but that tenor is completely off, and instead of airbrushed exaltation there was a quiet openness, and stark vulnerability too.

Instead Sprachgitter was more painting, and more pop at the same time. It made me think of a Spiderman and The Red Skull comic from 1978 that I read and re-read as a child. The front cover of the comic was red, black and green on a white background and the story was all about shame and redemption, with the dying Spiderman finally managing to prove that his dead parents weren’t Nazis.

Sprachgitter was pop in its starkness and though it wasn’t in Lassnig’s remit, a comic-book speech bubble would have fit in fine. Where it didn’t fit the pop mould was in its non-flatness. The brush strokes were abbreviated and unworked-over and the colours had been allowed to sit next to each other with no defining black line. It wasn’t painterly tasteful hues either however. Instead it was all bird-of-paradise reds, blues and yellows, the colours Matisse uses to paint upholstery patterning. With Sprachgitter, Lassnig was showing the inside of that upholstery so to speak, it’s stuffing and armature, yet it worked on the same register as Matisse: accessibly beautiful yet as distasteful and dangerous looking as the French painter was at first considered to be.

Good taste is comparing. It’s second-guessing for social acceptance or gain, primarily when you have something to loose. If you have nothing to loose, such as Matisse who was routinely ridiculed, or like Lassnig who had no success after many years of trying, then reporting back from that financially uncertain or psychologically precarious place seems logical rather than socially risky or like a bad career move.

In the 2006 interview when Lassnig was in her eighties, she was asked by Frieze if there were any major projects she was working towards. “I have never worked towards an exhibition” she replied. Painting from obligation rather than career choice is a premise that immediately lends credibility to an artist’s output. It implies that the artistic vision is uncompromised and unmediated, and this makes for an exciting prospect.

Walking into the Lassnig show at Hauser & Wirth I discover the paintings are hung chronologically. It’s a retrospective of her career. I wasn’t aware that Lassnig had died and finding out adds a degree of poignancy to the prospect of a chronology, like listening to a eulogy at a funeral. Chronological biopics and eulogies, as with the idea of the driven artist – the premise of painting from obligation, exist in an independent relationship to truth, which converges with, or diverges from truth depending on the intention and capability of the director or curator or eulogiser. As with the premise of authenticity however, the premise of a well-represented chronology is what we are given at Hauser & Wirth and is what should be taken at face value.

First to see are the early works from the 1950s, and they probably do indeed eschew the prerequisites of a good career move. Though they are abstract, so in keeping with the period, they are small and have a timeless lightness of touch in an era of the giant paintbrush, heavy gloopy paint and the supersize canvas. I have this feeling in fact, that they are stubbornly recalcitrant and this makes me think of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield labeling everything phony that had even a whisper of self promotion or of getting-in-on-the-act about it. I read in the gallery blurb Lassnig’s quote that “truth resides in the emotions produced in the physical shell”, which seems by turn to be universally mystical and earnest to the point of being anti-social.

Violette Form (1951) for example, is obliterated by powdery magnolia in all but a dense, aubergine hued network of truncated brush strokes in the centre of the canvas. It’s a coup d’état of anti-rule-of-thirds and anti-nice. Or in Tashismus, (1958) a landscape of thinned-down swirls of burnt sienna on a white canvas which makes me think of the photographs of ‘dirty’ IRA prisoner disputes in the 1970s where inmates smeared their own faeces over the white cell walls in protest against guard mistreatment.

I walk on and the work changes. By the 1960s the abstract landscapes give way to figuration and I catch a glimpse of something similar to what had been so beguiling in Sprachgitter: an aspect of a facial type that I begin to understand is a recurring motif in Lassnig’s work. From a vitrine of photographs in the show it’s clear that the facial type is part self-portrait, but distorted to form a sometimes skull-like and sometimes monkey-like phrenology. Specifically it’s a face with a large philtrum; the area between the upper lip and the nose, which in Lassnig’s portraits is often upturned and caricatured (a term that Lassnig was sensitive about). The painting I first see this in is Dornenreif / Frau im Dornenreifen (Ring of Thorns / Woman in Ring of Thorns) 1963/1964, which is of a squat figure up against the right-hand edge of the canvas and made more squat by foreshortening. The figure is painted solely in shades of burnt-skin magenta, and shows off a builder’s bum-cleavage. However because of the lightness of the brushstrokes and the translucent washes of the background the painting has a gracefulness, and the figure’s pursed lips make it comically defiant too. Dornenreif / Frau im Dornenreifen more or less marks the beginning of what Lassnig calls ‘body awareness paintings’ which is essentially an unpremeditated approach: The only intention is that I sense the way I am standing in front of the canvas at that particular moment” she says, “and then I go into detail. And, of course, I have to give form to that – because a feeling has no form; it is a dissemination.”

Transcendence through awareness of the body or of the breath, is of course a Hindu/Buddhist practice and may partly account for Lassnig’s approach given the popularity of Eastern mysticism amongst artists in the 1950s. There’s a toying with a literal transcendental-ness in Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting 1951 as well as elsewhere in minimalism and there’s also a bodily transcendence of representation in artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. For Lassnig however, the concept functions primarily as an opening gambit, a means to an end. It facilitates her drive to push an innerness outwards beyond the skin, whilst maintaining a tightness of form lacking in the other artists mentioned. Towards the end of her life she describes this as conjoining an “… inner body awareness and the contrasting retinal view of my body, the external view.” Accomplishing this – fully becoming Maria Lassnig so to speak – with the full faculty that Sprachgitter transmits – is a process rather than an event. In Dornenreif / Frau im Dornenreifen the skin of the figure is explosively red-raw, a pre-eruption, but is nevertheless still an unbroken container for the truly undifferentiated matter lurking beneath the surface.

It was Francis Bacon who so successfully bridged the visceral-ness of Pollock and Kline with figurative representation, and Lassnig found herself overcast by his shadow. It was a problem, and for Lassnig it called for somehow generating provision and sufficient headspace for herself. As the Zen Buddhism maxim advises ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.’

At least in terms of the lineage of gesturally figurative painters, finding accommodation through neutralizing the stranglehold of a predecessor has a compelling genealogy. Van Gogh splendidly demolished La Méridienne by Millais, transmuting a romantic slumber by the hay bales into a faceless and day-glo absinthe-like vision. Francis Bacon, picking up the gauntlet in Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh, (which shares some aspects of Dornenreif / Frau im Dornenreifen), painted the Dutchman bent over and decrepit, his features completely in shadow as if his importance had been finally eclipsed. Lassnig is the natural heir apparent and disarms Bacon on canvas but also verbally: People were always comparing me with him, and that made me livid” she says, “That’s the background again, which doesn’t interest me. And Bacon painted it so beautifully. Like a good boy. So diligent. Making little glass boxes. That annoyed me too.”

The next room at Hauser & Wirth takes us to Lassnig’s work in the 1970s, a room that if you experience the exhibition’s overall biography/chronology as candid, is a period when Lassnig’s critics, external and internal, win a coup. The body awareness technique and what I conjecture had been an internalised battling out with Francis Bacon has brought her such little critical and commercial success after 30 years of painting that Lassnig veers off course to pursue Realism, a genre seemingly so at odds with her sensibility.

The late 1960s and early 70s loss-of-faith drama evident in the show is corroborated by the Frieze interview. As Lassnig says: “It may have to do with the fact that when I moved to New York in 1968, I arrived with the body awareness paintings – the Americans didn’t understand those at all. They wouldn’t even show my work, said it was trash. And my upstairs neighbour in the loft said to me: you just can’t paint. That was when I painted these pictures – American realism. Green light without colours. How terrible. [laughs]. That they understood.”

The biographical narrative that the exhibition alludes to encourages us to look for triumph over adversity, a veering back on course. And if that archetype holds any weight at all, then it’s that over time, with a failure such as resorting to second-guessing the whims of fashion, comes the potential to fully comprehend what is at stake in getting back on track. This comprehension is something fully owned and earned. It’s irrevocable, whereas immediate success in exploiting fashion is vulnerable to equally quickly falling out of fashion.

Jumping ahead, fashion did eventually catch up with Lassnig in the mid to late noughties when there was what I call a ‘skull-boom’ both in galleries and in high-street fashion: Swarovski diamond incrusted skulls and Mexican Day of the Dead skull t-shirts sold like hotcakes. It was during this time that Lassnig’s 1999 painting made the front cover of Frieze. Now in 2017 those t-shirts are faded and languishing at the back of the wardrobe or on hangers in charity shops and the Swarovski skull looks even more like an expensive joke. It’s telling that Lassnig’s skull-like paintings today don’t share those qualities of passé-ness. They never were fashionable and are about something more personal and universal at the same time; after all, we all do still have a skull underneath our fleshy cheeks and scalp.

Structures such as style and fashion are what painter Kaye Donachie calls ‘scaffolding’, implying that inner discourse and true meaning is only to be revealed once the ‘scaffold’ or the structure of style falls away and a motif becomes fully owned. The biography archetype tells us that this can only happen with the process of failure, success from the outset being untested.

Susan Sontag in On Photography writes that: ‘In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.’

Part two of the show in the second gallery shows Lassnig’s work from the 1990s and 2000s. And here’s the spoiler alert: unlike in the first gallery room, all the canvasses are large, gallery grade and confident. Like in a movie biopic – the concluding part when the test of faith has finally been overcome – Lassnig as protagonist has evolved past the Realism period, yet kept some of its tropes in her repertoire; the pastel shades and acid yellows. She’s kept the abbreviated and fluid brushmarks from prior to the 1970s too, as well as the tropical palette and spacious backgrounds. And she’s developed the self-portrait-ish skull face with the upturned nose and Sir John Major upper lip, allowing it to ripen as a language to frame other narratives and feelings. Lassnig has finally become Maria Lassnig.