Maria Lassnig was born in 1919 in Kappel am Krappfeld, a small town in Corinthia, Austria. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Nazi annexed Vienna during World War II. Lassnig said she was a ‘diligent’ student, which is the same expression she used to talk about Francis Bacon. The artist died in 2014, also in Vienna and her work is currently at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London.
A few years ago I came across a Lassnig painting on the cover of a 2006 Frieze magazine. That painting was called Sprachgitter (Language grid) 1999, and is of a skull face with wide-open eyes, somewhere between surprise and horror like in Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. Meanwhile the cheeks of the face are corrugated like skinned ribcages, the mouth is aghast and the chin is truncated by what must be the grid of the painting’s title. That description might sound like 80s airbrushed-horror, and while it is theatrical, the paint in Sprachgitter is unworked, drippy and immediate. As well as being proper painting, it’s also pop. The face literally pops out at you from its stark white background – it’s just missing a Lichtenstein speech bubble and the thick black line. In fact it made me think of a comic from 1978 that I read and re-read as a kid: Spiderman and the Red Skull. The comic’s cover was lurid 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 is likewise pop in its bird-of-paradise colours, reds, blues and yellows. These are also the colours Matisse uses to paint upholstery patterning. However although there’s something of that lineage in Lassnig’s work, the register doesn’t sit well; with his odalisques, patterned wallpaper and painted faces, Matisse is all about the distance of surface whereas Sprachgitter in particular is extreme close-up showing us even what’s beneath the skin.
The formality of when an artist dies calls for particular consideration in the hanging of their retrospective – as that’s what the show is – and Hauser & Wirth have had a couple of years since Lassnig’s death to organise the show well. That begs the question of when a retrospective can be called comprehensive, or when instead it’s a eulogy of the best moments. Helpfully – and bucking the trend – the show is organised chronologically, and that places the show in the realm of a movie biopic, with the rising up, the fall from grace and the eventual return to grace at the end. And the show is a bit like that.
First to see are the early abstract works from the 1950s, They’re small and have a lightness of touch in an era of the gloopy paintbrush and the supersize canvas. Spending time with them you get the feeling that their smallness and lightness is deliberately recalcitrant, a reaction against the heaviness of the age. They make me think of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield labeling everything phony that has even a whiff 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”. That adds to the feeling that by being uncompromisable, Lassnig is issuing a challenge. Violette Form (1951) for example, is obliterated by powdery magnolia in all but a dense, aubergine hued network of short brush strokes in the centre of the canvas. It’s a coup d’état of anti-rule-of-thirds and anti-nice. You can also see this in Tashismus, (1958) a landscape of thinned-down swirls of burnt sienna on a white canvas. It makes me think of the photographs of ‘dirty’ IRA prisoner disputes in the 1970s, faeces smeared over the white cell walls in protest against mistreatment by guards.
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: a facial type that becomes 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. This face has a large philtrum – the area between the upper lip and the nose. In Lassnig’s portraits bit of the face 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 – at least in the show’s chronology – marks the beginning of what Lassnig calls ‘body awareness paintings’ which is a Zen-like 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. That of course comes from from Hindu and Buddhist practices, and may partly account for Lassnig’s approach given the popularity of Eastern mysticism amongst artists in the 1950s. Transcendence for Lassnig however, seems to function primarily as a means to an end; something that facilitates her drive to push an innerness outwards beyond the skin. In the Frieze interview from nearing 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.” Solely from the narrative of the show however, accomplishing this – fully becoming Maria Lassnig so to speak, with the full faculty that Sprachgitter transmits – is a process rather than a singular event. In Dornenreif / Frau im Dornenreifen, the skin of the figure is explosively red-raw, a pre-eruption, but it’s nevertheless still an unbroken container for the truly undifferentiated matter lurking beneath the surface.
It was Francis Bacon who successfully bridged the visceral-ness of Pollock, Kline and others with figurative representation, and Lassnig felt herself overcast by his shadow. “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.” This kind of diatribe fits well into the tradition of finding space and provision for oneself as a painter by diminishing the power of one’s forebears: Van Gogh splendidly demolished La Méridienne by Millais, hauling the romantic slumber-by-the-hay-bales into a 21st vista too bright for refuge. 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 eclipsing his importance. Lassnig in turn is the heir apparent with her derisive comments about ‘good boy’ Bacon. She backs this up by completely doing away with backgrounds in her paintings, the canvas is either bare or mono-coloured
The next room at Hauser & Wirth takes us to Lassnig’s work in the 1970s, a room that if you take the show as a biopic – and a candid one – introduces a period when the painter gets lost in the wilderness so to speak. The body awareness technique 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 at odds with her sensibility. The drama of this mid-career loss-of-faith is in fact corroborated by the 2006 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.”
Part two of the show is in the gallery next door, it’s still Hauser & Wirth but has a separate street entrance where, like film’s intermission, you can have a cigarette or an ice cream. We’re spared a movie-style dramatic or life-affirming epiphany however, and instead what the second half tells us is that Lassnig simply carried on painting. American Realism as well as other gestures become absorbed into her painting repertoire as points no longer in opposition. The large works here are from the 1990s and 2000s and you can see that Lassnig has kept some of the tropes of Realism; the pastel shades and acid yellows. But she’s also kept the abbreviated and fluid brushmarks from prior to the 1970s too, as well as the tropical palette and the spacious backgrounds.
What defines the second half and probably the show, is the extent of the care and development of the Body Awareness Paintings. This has particularly found it’s form in the motif of the broad face with its upturned nose and Sir John Major upper lip. It’s a face which sometimes morphs into a dog-face and sometimes a skull or a mask. In her later years – and as with other painters – you can see a reducing down of style into a more essential and unequivocal form. For Lassnig however, that sense of reduction seems to accompany an expansion of subject matter: a late freeing of the headspace necessary to explore other narratives. Perhaps some of the drive for her extremely personal work, as well as the need for this work to be recognised, had been satisfied.