If our Instagram celebrities think they know everything about selfies, they may be surprised about the possibilities of using the self-portrait (not only the face but the whole body) as developed by the artist Maria Lassnig (1919-2014). She really pushed the limits of the self-portrait, or the selfie, as a way to relating, exploring and mirroring the world. This is not about pouting, neither this is the directness of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits; instead, this is a fluid relationship between the body in relation with what is happening in the world: about science, gender perceptions, technology, war, home and institutions. In the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, all these elements are highlighted through an exceptional palette of vibrant colours. I must admit, this was the first appeal I had when I learned about her work, but going through her journey has really opened my eyes about the possibilities of painting and performing when one lives art through courage and unnerving experimentation.
Through her paintings Maria Lassnig portrays the “performance” of being an artist, the interplay of lines and surface and the body, her body. In a very famous picture, she is lying next to the canvas, painting with closed eyes, as in a comunion with the act of painting. The lines are strong and one needs to look closer to decipher the body… This is a changing body, reacting toward the environment or against it, interpreting it and converting it into colour and weird images. This constant aligning with her own body is the basis for developing her method of: “body awareness painting” – “Körperbewusstseinsmalerei” – Lassnig depicted pain, thought, blood and breath, as if they were objects she could hold and scrutinise. “The truth,” she once explained, “resides in the emotions produced within the physical shell.” (See excellent article Under the Skin, Kathryn Hughes The Guardian).
In some of the paintings, her body is transformed into a chair, with an electric halo and sinous curvy legs, or into a human grater, the scream of Francis Bacon’s next door Popes and figures made into this apparently innocent object. This reminds me also of Mona Hatoum, also exhibiting in the Tate, and her gigantic grater. As this domestication of female identity robs and “grate” the very soul of the person. In some other paintings, a pan is a blinding instrument, curbing or rather flatting violently the head and thinking of a feisty young woman. Throughout all these paintings, there are silent shouting, the colours are vibrant, the blues are iridescent, the greys and greens complementary and cruel.
She took on her relationship with the canvas in a literal form. In some she is going through the fabric, in others, she is that bump or mask of the portrait, in others, she simply merges with it. Her very accurate and highly recognizable face is rendered with brilliant masterstrokes. She is her most important “subject”, but she inhabits many others: she is the artist, the muse, the woman, the film-maker, the foreigner -she moved to New York from Vienna, and her work met incomprehension, isolation, becoming and reaffirming her “otherness”. In this period, she moved into animation and film-making, trying -perhaps- but soon merge it with her passion for drawing and painting. Her work was largely misunderstood, she was the loner, the loony, the weirdo… she was painting when everybody was embracing pop and conceptual art and “painting” was seen as old-fashioned. But she never abandoned painting, she digged deep into her own fears, her ways of reacting, her own ageing body. Her paintings on the hospital are really poignant, but so cleverly expressing the confines of the bed, the malaise body, the frailty of the body. And even some months before her death, she is defiant: brush as a dagger, the gaze on the viewer, piercing (literally, symbolically and visually) the surface of the canvas, and looking once again, what is to live as a woman, as an artist, as an old person in this world.
(After my own exhibition of Frida at the Menier Gallery, I have been wrestling with questions about what is to be an artist, what do I want to say, how can I express the many others inside me, how to dig into my life, my feelings, my roots and transform them into painting, into art. So far, I have been aligning with a representational type of art, enjoying the improvement of my abilities, the technical discoveries and challenges; but I also remember a time where meanings were deep albeit technique was poor. How to come back to a balance, a bridge between these arcane and raw emotions furthered with technique and practice? )