You may not be familiar with the name Maria Lassnig, but a new exhibition split across the blue-chip giant Hauser & Wirth’s two galleries on Savile Row is bringing the Austrian artist firmly centre stage. Lassnig died just over three years ago at the grand old age of 94, but her star is still firmly on the rise. It was only later in life that Lassnig began to receive due recognition and this latest show in London is just the third time her startling self-portraits have found their way to British shores (after the Serpentine in 2008 and Tate Liverpool last year) – so it seems we are late to the party and playing catch up.
To clue us in Hauser & Wirth have helpfully unpacked Lassnig from A to Z, starting with her earliest years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, through her time in Paris and New York to her most recent exploits. As a student Lassnig experimented with the new gestural abstraction that was sweeping Europe (as all students were obliged to do) before escaping to Paris in 1951 to continue her avant-garde education. Rare examples of these expressive, painterly works on display reveal how Lassnig dipped her toe into the different currents of contemporary art, but firmly went against the tide to focus almost entirely on herself as the subject.
It is the paintings from the 1960’s at Hauser & Wirth that see Lassnig truly reach her figurative stride. The shocking portraits from this period are the start of Lassnig’s lifelong fascination with physical form and the human psyche, which she dubbed ‘body awareness painting’. The concept behind this technique was to capture what it felt like to occupy your own body and translate on canvas these physical sensations. The results are unnerving. Strange tormented caricatures in fleshy pinks and reds inhabit examples such as ‘Self-portrait as an animal’ (1963) where a distorted figure confronts its bestial counterpart. Moving into the 1970s Lassnig’s blistering palette is tempered with cooler pastel tones. The highlight in this section must be ‘Triple Self-portrait / New Self’ (1972) where a more considered Lassnig reimages herself as the three stages of human evolution, culminating in a fully-fledged female smoking a cigarette.
Down the road the second of the two Hauser & Wirth spaces is given over to works from the 1980s and beyond. These later images really capture the ‘body awareness’ technique and demonstrate how Lassnig only painted the parts of the body that she could feel in the moment. For example in ‘Self-portrait with speech bubble’ (2006), where the 87 year-old Lassnig’s skin begins to sag, she purposefully excludes the crown of her skull and hair.
Monstrous and macabre, Lassnig’s self-portraits are relentless in their mission to expose the human condition, but their sensuous colour palette keeps hold of a certain beauty that will delight even the more timid gallery-goer. And while she has always refused to follow the crowd, it’s clear that Lassnig is well overdue a popular Renaissance.
By Alice Godwin
Maria Lassnig A Painting Survey, 1950 – 2007, 1 Mar – 29 Apr 2017, Hauser & Wirth London