Spanning work made from the 1950s to the end of the artist’s life, Maria Lassnig. A Painting Survey, 1950 – 2007, traces Maria’s evolution from early experiments with abstraction to a richly inventive figuration and the refinement of her glorious ‘body awareness’ paintings, in which she captured physical sensation as felt from within.
Maria devoted much of her career to recording her physiological states through a direct and unflinching style, believing that ‘truth resides in the emotions produced within the physical shell.’ And that emotional punch can be found in the works on display, in both galleries at Hauser & Wirth, whether that be in her fully abstract works, or her figurative pieces. And as well as form, Maria looked to colour to explore this too.
White skin is rarely a healthy tone in her works; instead its pallor is deathly and haunting, with hues of a sickly green, or such a vivid pink that it seems bloody and angry. Altogether unnatural.
Organised chronologically, the survey starts with Maria’s early abstract works. No doubt influenced by her involvement with the Vienna Art Club and links to the French Avant Garde. Thick brushstrokes of black, red and blue strike the canvas in Balken (Beams), 1950, and in the rarely seen Flächenteilung Schwarz-Weiss-Grau 2 (Field-division black-white-grey 2), 1953, more rigid geometric blocks of black, white and grey cover the canvas.
The 1960s and 1970s saw figures emerge in her work, but with that deep psychological penetration that became her hallmark. Selbstporträt als Tier (Self-portrait as animal), 1963, is ferocious in its bloody red and dense pinks, and – in contrast – the tones in Dreifaches Selbstporträt / New Self (Triple Self-Portrait / New Self), 1972, are haunting and sickly.
The 1980s onwards sees Maria blur the two styles to explore and excavate the psychological state of the human condition. Figures can, just about, still be made out, but they are less clear cut and often warped. Heads aren’t complete, legs are missing…. Biological accuracy is abandoned in favour of what can be felt – what hurts, what is inflamed – and as a result, the anger, fear and isolation of the human spirit is evident in such extraordinary pieces as Wissenschaftler I und II Le Scientistes (Scientists I and II), 1997, where bodies are seemingly at war with each other, and a later self-portrait where a bald, traumatised Maria looks out to the viewer, mouth agape, as if she is pleading for some kind of connection.
Seeing so may canvases where Maria puts herself in the frame – much of these works are a form of self-portrait – makes you realise how radical a female artist Maria was. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s with the feminist avant-garde when female artists would start to, explicitly, put themselves directly in their work. In this respect, Maria was ahead of her time. Or rather out of her time, for her figurative work was often not in step with the art world whilst she was alive, nor was her approach of centering her art around exploration of the artist, rather than the viewer. Nevertheless, her thrust in capturing and reflecting emotional and psychological needs and feelings on canvas makes her work endlessly fascinating.
Hauser & Wirth, London, to April 29, 2017
1 Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt als Tier (Self-portrait as animal) 1963 Oil on canvas 100 x 73 cm / 39 3/8 x 28 3/4 in Photo: Roland Krauss
2 Maria Lassnig Dreifaches Selbstporträt / New Self (Triple Self-Portrait / New Self) 1972 Oil on canvas 173 x 230 cm / 68 1/8 x 90 1/2 in
3 Maria Lassnig, Selbstportrait mit Sprechblase (Self-portrait with speech bubble) 2006 Oil on canvas 200 x 150 cm / 78 3/4 x 59 in