Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2019
Wolfgang Drechsler, ed. Maria Lassnig: Woman Power Exh. cat. Livorno, Italy: Sillabe, 2017. 152 pp. €20.00 (9788883479465)
Palazzo Pitti, Florence, March 25–June 25, 2017
Maria Lassnig, Mountain Spirit with Weasel, 1996, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 39 3/8 in. (125 x 100 cm). Albertina Museum, Vienna, Essl Collection (photograph by Molly Compton)

Maria Lassnig: Woman Power, curated by Wolfgang Drechsler and displayed in the Andito degli Angiolini at Palazzo Pitti, showcased twenty-five artworks by the Austrian painter Maria Lassnig (1914–2014). The paintings that were in the exhibition, which are either self-portraits or still-life pictures, examine the complex phenomenology of the material relationships between human flesh, animals such as tigers and birds, and diverse objects including scissors, musical instruments, plastic wrap, and fresh vegetables. Drechsler’s selection of twenty-five paintings spanning from 1960 to 2010 also traces Lassnig’s interest in using both abstraction and figuration to paint the here and now. As she insisted many times, her paintings were about the present, and because of this immediacy she needed to paint fast, before the present sensations became memories or anticipations of future sensations. It might seem strange to encounter a painting labeled as a self-portrait and see a fragmented torso with just one leg or a face occupied by a giant mouth. To further complicate the reading of her paintings as either figurative or abstract, Lassnig sometimes realistically depicts herself next to a tiger, a bowl of pickles, or a detailed portrait of a friend. Ultimately, however, the exhibition shows that her paintings are neither representational nor abstract. Instead, they move around this dichotomy. The self-portraits on display, comprising deformed and abstract elements, reveal the artist’s philosophy of “body awareness,” a term she coined in 1948. According to Lassnig, to be aware of your body does not mean to paint it as you see it, but as you feel it, as the object and subject of your introspection (Maria Lassnig: The Pen Is the Sister of the Brush, Steidl/Hauser & Wirth, 2010, 29). A hand might be missing because you cannot feel it, or cheeks are red because you feel them burning. The outside world—a tiger, grapes, a bird, scissors, or a table—could be a distraction or a prompt for the body to manifest its presence. As the painter herself explained, “In the body awareness pictures, however hard one concentrates on them, there is of course an outside world that exerts an influence” (Lassnig and Jörg Heiser, “Inside Out,” Frieze, no. 103, 2006, 124).

In Untitled (Crutches, Broken Leg) from 2005, for example, a body sustained by two crutches moves toward the viewer as it drags a broken leg. One hand is free. Its crutch is supported firmly under the figure’s arm and held so tightly to the body that it seems to have become part of it. The other arm, which is on the same side as the broken leg, grips the second crutch. Against the canvas’s empty background, wide brushstrokes counter the green-and-red body, which is animated by its desire to move, to heal, and empowered by its trust in the support the crutches offer. Drips of paint recall the immediacy with which Lassnig worked in order to make visible on canvas her transitory awareness of her body. The figure’s eyes are closed; the two thick red lines along the brow and what one sees on the rest of the canvas are the content of her inner world, the body under the skin. The exhibition revealed that unlike in the spontaneous paintings of Tachists and the art informal, the immediacy in Lassnig’s paintings was directed not toward an uncontrollable application of colors on canvas, but rather to the inward immediacy of body sensations while in the process of painting. The pictures on display at the Palazzo Pitti demonstrated that she rarely abandoned the introspection of “body awareness,” and when she did, it was only in response to the overwhelming presence of an extreme external event.

The six dimly lit Andito degli Angiolini rooms and corridors at Palazzo Pitti promised the viewer an intimate experience of Lassnig’s paintings. To walk from one room to the next the viewer passed by frescoed corridors of the Medici palace, once the location of the Medici family’s portraits, to enter a set of small rooms, in which gray panels were added to the original walls of the palace. Guided only by the illuminated canvases, the installation makes it difficult for the viewer to transition from Lassnig’s powerful self-portraits, from which her figure stares directly at the viewer, to her portraits of herself as an animal or an object, such as the work Head (1963), in which the artist’s facial lines form a muzzle that is fused to an elongated head with oversize blinded eyes. This picture hung beside the entrance to the next room, where Lassnig’s head became elephantine in Self-Portrait as an Elephant (1991). By the time the viewer reached the last room in the section, strong shades of green and yellow highlighting pink, red, and turquoise lines on mostly white backgrounds revealed unexpected associations between her body and animals, food, musical instruments, appliances, and buildings as well as a consistent painterly overlap of abstraction and representation.

It became clear toward the end of the show that Lassnig considered all of her paintings self-portraits. This is evident even in her 1989 Potato Press, in which her body, reduced to a square piece of raw meat, sits in an open manual potato press. Shaped as a red pillow, Lassnig’s body waits for the two sides of the press to close in on her and squeeze. As a self-portrait, Potato Press shows the body’s awareness of constriction and helplessness. In Mountain Spirit with Weasel (1996), thick lines provide the contours of a seated, suspended body that holds in one extended hand an open-mouthed, grinning weasel. The weasel looks directly at the body that grips it, mimicking a fragmented human face that grins right back at it. Other pictures show that Lassnig’s self-portraits do not always depict a recognizable face. Instead, they reveal the “sensation” of a face as it sits next to a bunch of grapes, a lemon squeezer, a table, and scissors. Showing a sensation on a surface requires a commitment to the body as the main source of inspiration. In the artist’s 2001 Fishing for Ideas, for example, a reclining body is connected by string to three other bodies that loom over it, all of which try to fish something out of the body by dipping their hooks into its flesh. For Lassnig, the picture suggests that further details are unnecessary, because the painting’s visceral facture provides all the sensation the viewer needs to know what is being sought. To exit the exhibition, the viewer retraced her steps, passing Double Self-Portrait with a Lobster (1979), Sleeping with a Tiger (1975), and Woman Power (1979), a self-portrait of the artist as a giant, nude figure walking among New York City’s skyscrapers. It is this picture that inspired the exhibition’s title. Upon exiting, one was left with the sense that rather than providing an intimate excursion into Lassnig’s self-portraiture, the show offered a colder, clinical look at her body’s interaction with the world.

Although recognition came late for Lassnig, she is now considered one of the most important female artists of the twentieth century, along with artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Dorothea Tanning, Joan Mitchell, Alice Neel, and Jenny Saville. Promoted by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism with the Uffizi Gallery, the Albertina in Vienna, the Maria Lassnig Foundation, and Firenze Musei, the Palazzo Pitti exhibition Maria Lassnig: Woman Power recognized her legacy as an artist who persisted over a long career and who celebrated the female body by making visible the sensations of her own body in the world. By painting and drawing the sensations of her body as a living, material phenomenon, she refused to objectify it. The exhibition showed that she criticized art history’s gendered stereotypes about the female body by offering a procedural look at that body’s ambiguous rapport with architecture, technology, domesticity, and the other material aspects of the nonhuman world. Maria Lassnig: Woman Power asked the contemporary viewer to consider how we construct our identities by asking ourselves if our “thought[s] could be shown and peeled off like a skin” (Maria Lassnig. Body Awareness Painting, Snoek, 2006, 36). The exhibition reveals that her legacy is her commitment to introspection and to the possibility—as well as the impossibility—of depicting a sensation, or a thought. Lassnig’s legacy is her commitment to painting the phenomenon of change.

Mirela Tanta
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Millikin University