Maria Lassnig: Body Awareness

I realized that I have done y’all, dear readers, a huge disservice. I have failed to post anything on one of my FAVORITE artists in any genre EVER. Her name is Maria Lassnig, she hails from Austria, born September 8, 1919 in Kappel am Krappfeld, Carinthia. Lassnig built her artistic career by bravely exploring the insecurities associated with the internal sensations of the body by shamelessly exhibiting, for our viewing pleasure, her own body in paintings and drawings.

Since the 1940s, her self-portraits boldly explore “body awareness,” her term for these paintings, to reveal insights into Lassnig’s own feelings of sensations within her body. The viewer is invited to share with Lassnig, the senses felt within her own skin and we don’t just observe, we experience her fright, or timidness, or violence, or confusion. Her paintings are meant to make the viewer feel uncomfortable and the powerful effect of her images ironically comes from their vulnerability. Her naked, bald, and wide-eyed self-portraits brazenly posit her bare body for examination. Looking at them we see exposed, fragile, fleshy, soft fgures, naked with enlarged eyes full of feeling., and we empathize with these exposed figures.

Lassnig’s approach to painting is rooted in rendering only the parts of her body that she can feel while painting. Through this approach she has created an oeuvre originating with the recognition of the human body’s potential as a medium for generating images,  constituting a sort of autobiographical attempt to render her inner states on canvas. A lot of her portraits and later figures are shown without limbs, clothes, or hair because these are parts of herself she cannot sense while painting. In her large-format works Lassnig investigates themes like gender-roles, with figurative elements presented against monochromatic backgrounds in a colour-palette that  prominently features a neon-ish sea green, characteristic of her work. The spectrum of motifs ranges from a double-portrait (“Adam und Eva,” 2010) and the presentation of a couple making love, an amorphous green creature seeming to float above them (“Die Inspiration,” 2010), to a half-portrait of a young man who literally reveals his innermost, insofar as he opens up his chest with his own hands (“Der Jüngling,” 2011). Being completely unafraid of taking on unpleasant topics, Lassnig produced a series of paintings that places the violence of rape uncomfortably before the viewer, with the intention of allowing us to experience the victims’ terror and helplessness while simultaneously relating to the dominance and pleasure felt by the rapist. A lot of her self-portraits in later life are such dualities that comment on youth and age.  She exposes similar feelings of helplessness felt by the very young and the very old by juxtaposing a childhood companion, the teddybear, with her frail and aged body (“The teddy is More Real than Me,” 2002).

“The teddy is more real than me”

Following her graduation from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1944, Lassnig contributed greatly to the emergence of art informal in Austrian in the early 1950s. She met and befriended Arnulf Rainer and Josef Mikl and the three abstract painters exhibited in Vienna around this time. During this time she was part Hundsgruppe, which also included Arnulf Rainer, Ernst Fuchs, Anton Lehmden, Arik Brauer,  and Wolfgang Hollegha . The works of the group were influenced by Abstract Expressionism and action painting. Later, in the 50’s, she joined with Surrealist Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret. Lassnig’s early exposure to Art Informal, Surrealism, and Gutal left apparent influences in her softened graphic, but still brutally honest style. She remained singular from her contemporaries for the linguistic interests she pursued in her portraits. She also left her mark on the development of feminist art in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In 1980, after living for several years between Paris and New York, Lassnig returned to Vienna for a position at the Academy of Art, becoming the first female Professor of painting in a german-speaking country. She was also the first woman artist to win the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988, and in 2005 she was awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.

Lassnig has also exhibited extensively through the world.  She represented Austria, with Valie Export, at the Venice Biennale in 1980, and has twice exhibited at documenta. In 1996 a retrospective of her work was held at the Centre Georges Pompidou. For the  2005-2006 year she she designed the large scale picture (176 m2) “Breakfast with Ear” as part of the exhibition series “Safety curtain” the Vienna State Opera. In 2008 an exhibition of her recent paintings was shown at the Serpentine Gallery which also travelled to the Contemporary Arts Center in the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, (2009). The exhibition was curated by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist in association with Rebecca Morrill and featured thirty canvases and seven films. Lassnig’s recent solo exhibitions include, It’s art that keeps one ever young, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, (2010), ‘Maria Lassnig. Films’, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York NY, (2011), and THE LOCATION OF PICTURES, Deichtorhallen; Hamburg (2013).

Finally, Lassnig received the 55th Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, awarded at the Biennale’s June 1 opening, with the Italian artist Marisa Merz. Lassnig is now 93 and it is a great honor to be awarded this in honor of her long and prolific career. In old age, many artists are criticized for becoming soft, conventional, “losing their style/vision/fire/<insertcritique> but Maria Lassnig has proven that age cannot be held up as a barrier to art making, to impact-full art making, and she continues to produce art that pushes boundaries to expose dualities to reveal insights into ourselves, bodily and conceptually.

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2 thoughts on “Maria Lassnig: Body Awareness

  1. Pingback: Jasper Johns | Art for a Hungry ShareBear
  2. Pingback: Maria Lassnig…SHE art « Cheryl Johnson Art & Photography

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