The celebrated Austrian artist is shown in a new light with many previously unseen works
Somewhat ironically for an artist of such renown, Maria Lassnig claimed she was “a researcher, not a painter.” It makes a great deal of sense to bear this in mind as the Albertina presents a retrospective of around 100 drawings and watercolors to commemorate the third anniversary of her death. Many of the works are displayed in public for the first time, showing her “introspective experiences” from many new angles alongside some of her more familiar pieces.
Born out of wedlock in Carinthia in 1919, Lassnig studied at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna during the Nazi regime. Staunch Expressionism was banned as “degenerate” art; in spite or perhaps because of this, Lassnig delved headlong into abstraction to convey whatever she could of her own self. She described her self-created field as “body awareness”: Emerging from sensations felt during the painting process like the pressure of the chair on her back and thighs, Lassnig’s craft became “an instrument of self-analysis.”
Often likened to Kokoschka and Schiele for her expressionist compositions and peculiar palette, Lassnig painted skin in near fluorescent pinks beside pallid pond greens, simultaneously unnerving and intriguing. Drawn towards reflecting the body and psyche at its most vulnerable, her unflinching eye depicted wrinkles, blemishes and other imperfections in a manner both witty and dark. Utilizing abstraction was a means to illuminate the deepest urges and emotions, with the human body as a conduit. Subjective by definition, whatever she could not feel was excluded from the portrait. In her own words, “The only true reality is my feelings, played out within the confines of my body.”
Judging by her potency, it’s hard to believe that Lassnig was relatively unknown until later in her life. It wasn’t until 1980 that she returned to Austria after living in New York, becoming the first female professor of painting in any German-speaking country at the age of 60. Later that year, she represented her country alongside feminist performance art pioneer Valie Export at the Venice Biennale.
As it is, this means there is still a multitude of works only now being uncovered from her archives – just as this exhibition proves.
May 5-Aug 27, Albertina