Maria Lassnig’s “Ways of Being”

at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam
Reviewed by Arabella Hutter von Arx

In the self portrait Du oder Ich (You Or Me), Maria Lassnig points one gun at the viewer, the other at herself. Either I kill you or I kill myself, or both. Her face expresses fear, dismay, perhaps disgust, but not aggression. If she shoots at the viewer and her double, the brush-flourishing painter, it’s out of sheer terror. In her 80s, Lassnig depicts herself in the nude, without sparing us any detail of her ageing body. Sagging breasts, folds of flesh, hairless pudenda. The visitor is warned: the works in Maria Lassnig’s retrospective will not shy from brutal truths. We live in angst, in solitude, our bodies decay, we die, or those we love die. Women are subjected to male domination, artists to opportunists and passing trends. These facts of life, of her life, of ours in their universality, are delivered through Lassnig’s very own brand of expressionism: broad strokes, distortion of the body and face, grotesque, symbolism. So why does the work in the exhibition leave an impression of such striking beauty?

Maria Lassnig’s Lady with Brain

The first gallery in the exhibition honoring the painter on her 100th birthday is dedicated to self portraits, the form Maria Lassnig is best known for. In this luminous and airy space, the paintings get their due: arresting, powerful, vivid, the walls come alive with the creative force of the Austrian artist. Lady with Brain (1990–1999), the poster image of the exhibition, regroups typical features of Lassnig’s self portraits: garish skin tones, mouth aghast, face distorted with existentialist torment, she’s looking out of frame above our heads. We are not privy to what’s there, but it ain’t looking reassuring. Lassnig painted only what she sensed in the moment, in a process she called ‘body awareness’. The term has stuck with her the way convenient labels do. She distorts body parts and limbs or eliminates them altogether, if she is not aware of their existence in the moment. Most of the self portraits are full length, as they focus more on her physical presence in the world than on the expression of personality. In our male dominated art history, the nude has perpetuated the objectification of the female body. Lassnig subverts this traditional genre by questioning the definition of femininity in her paintings. Elements in the compositions look like shoulder blades or hips or blades, a piece of something, except there is no whole. When body parts resemble bits of machines and vice versa, when live bodies look dead, and corpses float above the living, the boundaries of our humanity crumble, and horror comes into play: men-machines, men-animals, ghosts, aliens, the stuff that makes mythology. Lassnig’s self portraits always represent her alone, with a blank background, but sometimes accessories, tools, and animals, or her double, turn the piece into a symbolic painting, in an unusual combination of genres. She articulates her own mythology to beat conventions, and deliver her bitter truths.

The colors, blue, pink, yellow, green, all cheerful pastels, are visually pleasing at first glance. These hues, presenting a dry surface, often with just one layer of paint, produce a bold effect through their juxtaposition. Usually applied to representing flowers and fruit and exotic birds, they signal decay when depicting flesh. This incongruity contributes to Lassnig’s brand of grotesque expressionism. The beauty of the colors and sometimes of the shapes, of the compositions, exist independently of the subject matter. The anguish does not rise from substance itself, but from our dismal condition as humans. She deliberately suppresses all contextual background that could indicate mood and emotion. The introspection and psychological insight found in the self portraits of expressionists Kossoff or Auerbach for example hold no interest for her. An unexpected transcendental quality radiates from her work as sensations, instead of being mediated by emotions, link directly to the metaphysical sphere.Her broad brushstrokes add a raw effect common to most expressionists, yet render perfectly the volume of the head in Lady With Brain. When she paints hands, which obsessed many artists — Dürer, da Vinci, and van Gogh to name a few — she proudly shows her hand!

Lady With Brain is an unusual self portrait for Lassnig in that it depicts an organ with little nerve perception. She tends to leave its representation out, the top of the head vanishing past the hairline. Or rather paint obscures everything that is outside the immediate body sensation, be it context or parts of the body. While we cannot feel our brain, we are constantly aware of its activity, the mind, our consciousness. Lassnig represents her brain outside its normal location, taken out for careful examination. It looks vaguely decorative, like a braid, yet Lassnig was well aware that women are not so much valued for their minds as for their bodies. She certainly took delight in the activities of her brain, it was pretty to her, even if her mind did not bring her solace from her loneliness and angst. The title itself is distancing, as if the painter joins the viewer to better assess this “lady”, a term that smacks of irony given Lassnig’s rather unladylike persona. She refused to be boxed in a conventional woman’s role and rebelled throughout her life, either as an individual, or as part of a movement such as the Viennese Actionists. The fisheye perspective and low angle used in Lady with Brain, as in all her self portraits, are most unflattering. Our perception of ourselves as humans is distorted by our egocentrism, which makes us seem larger than everything else. The open mouth expresses vulnerability, like a bewildered child, or a mouse, does not seem endowed with speech, that essential human capacity. Instead of conveying superior intellect, it expresses the terror of an animal taken to the slaughterhouse.

Self with Guinea Pig

A cozy quilt wraps the small creature in Self with Guinea Pig (2000), but the human subject is brutally naked. As Lassnig compares herself to the animal and vice versa, she looks ironically to the viewer, or in a mirror, for an opinion. The animal wins the competition, hands down. It is way more lovable with its sweet little face and coat of fur, nothing grotesque about this creature. Hair tends to be missing in Lassnig’s self portraits, as it lacks nerve endings. This important aspect of femininity, sometimes the main sign telling a woman apart from a man, gets suppressed as she refuses to prettify herself for the viewer. The absence of our vestigial bits of furs in her representations further differentiates us from our animal counterparts. Despite the broad strokes technique, the guinea pig’s eye comes across as perfectly round and shiny. It is an object represented by the painter naturalistically, when her own eye is both object and subject, it is seen and is involved in the act of painting. Her whole person as subject is perceived from the inside, and presented as object to the viewer. Usually, the viewer and the painter occupy the same position, which creates a complicity between them, and often leads to an ironical view of the subject. In a self portrait, that simple triangle gets confused since the painter as object looks both at herself and at the viewer: a distance is created, since the viewer pries on the painter’s study of her own image. Michel Foucault famously analyzed this ambiguity in the Las Meninas painting where Velasquez, brush in hand, is either looking at a mirror, or at the viewer, or at the royal couple, or at all of these.

The painting Rabbit Picture takes this ironical stance further, as evident in its self referring title. Yes, there is some kind of rabbit, or bits of rabbit. The rabbit and human figures look interchangeable, they do not oppose a contrast as in Self Portrait with Guina Pig. One form looks a bit like a rabbit, the other, more clearly human, might be holding a pencil, and drawing. A picture of a rabbit? The rabbit could be a human seen from the back from the clue of its human foot and its two dots that could be nipples, or the pips in an apple. Perspective is hardly sketched, background is blank, the monochromatic figures thickly outlined as in mythological works from the 1930s by Picasso and cohort. They could be symbolic images from the subconscious, or a comic sign of a creature. We like to anthropomorphize animals in comic books and cartoons. As they become caricatures of ourselves, and reason and speak and feel, we laugh because animals are dumb, we believe. It’s that kind of rabbit. As far as Lassnig is concerned, she’s put some paint on this canvas, and it could be a rabbit or it could be a human or it could be anything she pleases. She portrays with humor rather than arrogance the nature of the relationship. And we can try to figure it out. Or not.

In Love of Animals (1998), the creatures that are loved are only very partially animal: one has a kind of rodent head, possibly another rabbit. The rest looks human, its gender unspecified, though the resemblance to other self portraits suggests it’s female. The title uses “our” which should immediately rise suspicion coming from fiercely solitary Lassnig. Who are “we”? The sticks “we” hold come with little clue as to their role but for a smear of color. The hands in sight could be drawing the animals, or drawing blood from them. The legs of the humans are masculine, and naked. The contorted figures, below the “humans”, look like victims that can expect to have their throat slit at any time. The relationship doesn’t come across as very loving, whether from humans to animals, or from men to women, certainly no petting happening here. In the trio Head/Gynecology/Self Portrait As an Animal (c. 60s) the delimitation between humans and animals is blurred again. The terra cotta color and sculptural style from 1920s European art characterizes The Head. The subject’s headband, which gives it a coquettish femininity, is actually a missing part of the skull, the back wall coming through the gap in the mind. The face radiates self satisfaction in another ironical jab, its solemnity humorous. Animals arouse an amused tenderness in the painter that humans do not, certainly not the gruesome baby being presented to its mother.


Gynecology (1963) which looks more like obstetrics, is painted from the point of view of the doctor-painter, rather than the mother. She is remarkably absent apart from her vagina: that rectangular hole would best squirt bricks. Her grotesque face, or an apple cut in two, stares at the creature, part monster, part alien, that came out of her body. Is that a bundle of joy? A similar face is represented in Breakfast with Egg (1964), Lassnig’s satirical reinterpretation of Manet’s Déjeûner sur l’Herbe and its exploitative images of women. Lassnig chose not to marry, not to have children. Her ambiguity around motherhood shows in Illusion of Missed Motherhood (1998)where the froglike body is particularly grotesque with its lurid colors. Some unidentifiable thing is coming out or is being pushed back into the non mother’s body.

Sleeping with a Tiger

In Sleeping With a Tiger (1975), the woman literally sleeps with the enemy. It might be a handsome animal, but the woman had better remember her lover might devour her any moment. She rarely represents animals by themselves, they act as symbols or myth that define the human experience. The steer in Virgin with Bull (Virgin Inititation), 1988, is both an animal depicted realistically, and a creature from mythology: Zeus took the form of a bull to abduct the princess Europa and rape her, thus fathering Minos, the future King of Creta. Lassnig shows ambivalence when exploring this myth. Europa has a symbiotic relation to her abductor, who becomes a symbol of creative fecundation rather than a violent male figure.

Mystery, and a hint of antique mythology too, permeates Warrior’s Rest (1972) as the eyeless face emerges from nowhere, and her right foot disappears in unknown territory. Warrior’s Rest, if translated literally (Die Rast der Kriegerin), is imposing in its simplicity, and power. The face’s expression resists scrutiny, its sculptural beauty reminiscent of Picasso’s best portraits, such as The Dream (1932). The body, only present in parts, reminds of Henry Moore’s sculptures but where he shrunk women’s heads, Lassnig’s face is central to the painting. Her environment is defined for once as its close walls shuts the woman in. An ominous foot dominates the scene (she’s underfoot, her surrealist friends might say). There is a mystery, as the face emerges from a green limbo, and a hint of ancient mythology too.

Surrealism also informs Eyeglasses Self-Portrait (Augengläser-Autoportrat), 1965, which brings to mind a Chirico with its absurd architectonics. Its title, the French word for self portrait, puns on the fact that two automobiles (auto in French) appear in the piece. Four or five versions of Lassnig are up for posterity. One bust is coming out a flower pot, and arranged by the arms of a person in the same position as the painter, in a composition element similar to the Gynecology’s obstetrician. The bust on the left is looking up and outside the frame, again we don’t know at what. Its terra cotta hue brings to mind Picasso’s pink period and that whole era of sculptural painting post WWI when artists were looking to European Antiquity for meaning. To the far right, a symmetrical orange/white bust, like a Harlequin, is more at peace than the others, having wisely closed its eyes. Below the parapet and its alignments of busts, the cars suggest a perspective that is refuted by the white cloud, also reminiscent of Chirico. The cars mark the perspective, the time period, and add surrealistic wit to the scene: they don’t seem to exist as a vehicle, as someone’s property. The eye of the bust on the right is hugely enlarged, which might be a reference to eyes’ involvement in media: TV, photography, which Lassnig explored mid career. This eye, as reflective as a car’s body, mirrors a window that must be above the artist’s head, confirming that the scene takes place at the edge of a terrace. These various versions of Lassnig are very much in their own world that we are not privy to. One of the busts is looking at a book, or its sight is obscured by the book spread over its eyes. Lassnig had a strong relationship to writing. Her delight in words is apparent, not one single work is “Untitled”, but most are granted such flights of fancy as “Napoleon and Brigitte Bardot”, “Camera Cannibale”, “The Betwittered”. Some of her aphorisms, lining the top of each room, border on pedantry: THE ONLY TRULY REAL THINGS ARE MY SENSATIONS — I AM THE ORGANIZER OF THE UNCERTAIN -THE DRAWING IS CLOSEST TO THE IDEA. Body awareness smacks of dogmatism too, as in a school lead by a guru. She was very much influenced by radical thinker Oswald Wiener, and translated his theories about writing from awareness to painting. But pedantry does not affect her art. ‘When I’m painting, almost everything is allowed. Embarrassment is a challenge; I want to paint things that are uncomfortable.’

Self-Portrait with Pickle Jar

While she applied body awareness to practically all her self portraits, Lassnig also liked to depart from this method. Her work is varied, audacious, free. When people play a role in a mythological narrative, such as Atomic Mothers, or Gynecology, the faces, unrecognizable, do not differentiate them as individuals. But when she paints animals or portraits of actual people, she represents them with objectivity. In her naturalistic piece Self-Portrait with Pickle Jar (1971), her body is rendered with its feminine proportions, its natural flesh hues barely tinged green by the beautiful marine depths around her. Hair is present, eyebrows even. She’s considering herself from another person’s perspective, and asking, well, what do they see, what does this Maria Lassnig look like to the world? But a jar of pickles, right in front of her womb, implies that she’s offering sourness instead of an offspring. The head, which is a bit out of proportion with the body, too large, is raised to contemplate something bigger than Lassnig. She seems in expectation, hopeful or powerless. What’s in store for her?

Her still lives might represents reality with conventional perspectives, with light revealing volume, such as American Still life with Telephone (1971–72), but the subject is unreal. She enjoys displaying her skills while holding on to her irreverent attitude. A hint of Cézanne can be detected in Still Life with Apple Saw (1969), with its slightly skewed perspective, and its masterly depiction of the tablecloth. Throughout her life, she explored the past, referring to painting tradition or mythology. The fascist phase in Europe and particularly in Austria became a preoccupation as well as war and violence. Irreverence and irony did not apply, as she silenced her personal perceptions to fathom this period. Searching for an objective stance, her brush, her pen became fastidiously realist. “That was a big jump for me, from the interior view to the retina view and the horrors of the outside worldview. Even back then, during my American ‘realism’ period in the early 1970s.” Photographs and posters loom behind the work, as if she had to conjure these images to make the horror more graspable. A similar restraint affects her treatment of contemporary war. Instead of synthesizing the themes as in her paintings, their images are juxtaposed for maximum effect in her collages of photographs.

Small Science Fiction Self Portrait

In addition to digging the past, she turned her gaze to the future as a bountiful source of mythology. She wears virtual reality glasses in Small Science Fiction Self Portrait (1995). The reality of the subject seems pretty grim: a dull dirty background, no clothes, nothing but a puny body and an oversized brain like aliens in popular culture. Her mouth, gaping as usual, stretches down in a grimace that is not quite so depressed. Whatever she sees is taking her away from reality, from us, and holds a modicum of hope. Is she looking at the future? At the product of her imagination?

She enjoyed letting loose with watercolor, a more spontaneous medium than oil. In Inner Landscape in an Outer Landscape, the subject’s loneliness seems particularly sour in the context of a landscape of such beauty. Even in this cliché Mediterranean landscape, she’s lonely. Maybe more lonely. Solitude, a recurring theme, relates for her to the lack of communication and the difficulty of relationships. Most of her paintings express this pessimism, but two self portraits show evidence of a strong relationship with her mother.

In Beam in The Eye/Mourning Hands, painted after her mother’s death, Lassnig seems crushed, sitting in the lower corner. Above her floats her mother’s dead body, her face identical to that of her daughter, as if Lassnig were dead too. A beam strikes her through the eye and the head, and similar beams appear in a number of paintings focused on relationship. Both the dead woman’s hands and Lassnig’s hands, the lifeless color of chalk, seem frozen: can these hands still paint? The later Self Portrait with Stick (1971) is more optimistic with a beam still piercing through her heart. The ghost of her mother protects her from behind, her hands resting affectionately on her shoulders. Together they face what is coming Maria’s way. Her mother’s portrait looks realistic, and Lassnig’s self portrait is also more objective, her hair flows, lit by her favorite sea green. The light maternal gaze imparts her daughter a touch of objectivity to look at herself, without the usual distortion of the ego’s eye.

Beam in The Eye/Mourning Hands

Apart from her relationship with her mother, she was a solitary woman in her life and in her career as she battled the odds against a woman artist. But she sought peers and other creators such as poets and thinkers, she was interested what the other artists were doing, and tracked the current art movements. Lassnig trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and then moved to Paris, attracted by its cultural aura, in the 1950s and 60s. There, she was influenced by Tachisme, and Art Informel, a European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism, that fostered links to surrealism, and gestural painting. While she explored these movements, she always retained her place as a maverick. A room exhibiting her early work includes a self portrait, with a boldness and authenticity already very much in the vein of her later work. When she moved to New York City in the early 70s for its vibrant art scene, she cofounded a feminist avant-garde group with Martha Edelheit, Silvianna Goldsmith, and the much regretted Carolee Schneeman. She seemed to have produced less of her large oil paintings in New York City, where her paintings were met with incomprehension. Her images, both in her watercolors and in her films, reflect the era’s style and pop culture — think Yellow Submarine and its rivulets of surrealism.

You or Me (2005)

Trend is less evident in the work after her return to Austria. But we also lack the perspective needed to detect period detail: what is the look of our sunsetting 10s? As she reached old age, she expressed frustration at some of its hardships and handicaps, but age did not prevent her from producing memorable canvases. Beauty comes through in Self-Portrait With Brush (2010–13) in the section devoted to “autumn thoughts.” The arm, roughly sketched out, would stab us with its brush, but for its weakness. Her face carries a particularly defiant expression, and the whole painting carries an unexpected feeling of fun. The extended date range does not relate to the drawn out process of an old person, but to one of her practices: she often kept paintings for several years before she felt confident they could be released. During that self editing period, she would return to the work and sometimes add modifications. The characters in Krankenhaus look like buffoons, mocked with the cruel humor that ran amok in the Middle Ages. Ah it’s funny, getting old, losing control over one’s body. One patient, wearing a night cap, looks as if he belongs to a Hyeronimus Bosch group of sinners. The other one, at the far left, shows the early expressionism of James Ensor in direct continuation to Bosch’s grotesque style. These patients don’t even enjoy the dignity of being alone in their hospital room, or might be versions of Lassnig in various stages of decay: the woman on the right is suspiciously similar to her self portraits, the hair missing, the mouth rodent like. Her hand hides part of her face: she’d rather not see, she’d rather not be seen. The face in profile top right looks masculine, or deprived of sexuality because of age. Its grimacing profile is in the throes of agony, if not dead yet. The edge of the sheet, or one of these beams that invade Lassnig’s paintings, sections the composition in two, preventing the union of body and mind. This masterpiece, and the main body of her work, can be classified as neo-expressionist. The London School which loosely included R.B. Kitaj who coined the term, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, and Francis Bacon might be a closer fit, even if she did not claim this relationship: “People were always comparing me with [Bacon], and that made me livid. (…) I also saw that he is a genius. I really would have taken off my hat to him if I had met him. But he was not a kindred spirit, because of his painting from photographs; I only painted from my imagination.”They all painted figuratively when abstract expressionism was all the rage. But her work always looked singularly modern through its simplification prefiguring on the minimalism of the next decades. The films shown as part of the exhibits expand on Lassnig’s sense of fun and exploration. In fact, some of her early 70s animations influenced the next generation of experimental filmmakers. A room is dedicated to drawings and prints that delight by their sophistication and irony, while inventive sculptures command the central spaces of the galleries. The incursions in various media focus on the same themes as her paintings: identity, the subjection of women, violence, norms. All of her pieces demonstrate her wit, her sincerity, her endless creativity. Lassnig had a rich life, left a rich body of work, and both are conveyed hauntingly through the choice of the pieces in this retrospective.

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