Maria Lassnig was one of Austria’s prominent Abstract Expressionist artists. Most of her paintings and drawings throughout her lifetime were mostly semi-figurative self-portraits that did not idealize the female body. Her unflinching, confrontational self-portraits often resulted in bizarre and grotesque human shapes that she defined as “body consciousness” or “body awareness painting.” Her scintillating color palette and expressive renderings were revelations of emotional states.
She had been a school teacher in the mountains of Austria when at age 22 she decided to become an artist. So she biked all the way to Vienna to attend the Academy of Fine Arts. It was during the Second World War, and in this conservative academy she was forced to look at drab, realistic “paintings of peasants,” sanctioned by the National Socialist state. In 1951, she left Austria and studied in Paris on a scholarship. There she met surrealist artists and poets such as Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret. While their influence on her could be seen in her brilliant abstract compositions, she never considered herself to be a surrealist. Unlike them she was not painting fantasy but rather the real-life sensations of her own body. “ . . fantasy has nothing to do with reality, but imagination is connected to an awareness of the body as well as what you see inside your head.”
In 1960, Lassnig moved to Paris and lived there for eight years. She started anew and painted the relationship between her own body and the canvas. Her spontaneous self portraits were put together in an abstract way as she expressed on canvas what she felt inside. Her large-format line drawings expressed her inner world in “body-sensation figurations” where sensuously curved and fractured lines evoked an almost unrecognizable female form.
In 1968, Lassnig moved to New York City at the urging of artist Nancy Spero where she changed her life again and was enriched and influenced by Feminism and New York’s feminist artists, such as Carolee Schneeman. Lassnig experimented with surreal, monstrous forms that merged human figures with animals. She joined with other women artists and film makers and studied animation and film at the New York’s School of Visual Arts. She made six short experimental films, but her most famous film was made in 1992, “Kantate,” a self-portrait set to music.
In the 1970s in New York, she made oil paintings, intaglio prints, films, graphic works, and emotionally charged self-portraits. One such 1971 portrait, “Selbstportrat mit Stab” (Self-portrait with Rod), painted in her signature palette of pale-bluish greens, shows herself seated on a chair, holding a rod that pierces through her bare torso. Barely visible in the background is the phantom form of her deceased mother.
In 1980, she returned to Vienna and became the first woman professor of painting at the Academy for Applied Arts. In Vienna, she worked in a new expressionistic style to produce self-portraits of machinelike figures with faces obscured, contorted, or replaced by mechanical apparatuses. While oil was her primary medium, in the 1980s she frequently used watercolors in her paintings. Her works from the 1990s and 2000s featured semi-figurative, semi-abstract representations mostly of herself that were fleshy and naked, as if bodies were turned inside out. Here she worked in her “drastic painting” style with characters portrayed with vivid distortions of limbs or with body parts missing and using unnatural colors as in her “Competition I” which was painted when she was eighty years old.
In 1980, Lassnig represented Austria at the Venice Biennale. In 1998, she was awarded Austria’s Oskar Kokoschka Prize in recognition of her work. In 2013, she received the Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement at the 55th Venice Biennale. In 2014, New York City’s MoMA PS1 had a major exhibition of her works. Her work since then has been exhibited at the Fondacio Tapies in Barcelona, Tate Liverpool, the Albertina in Vienna, Kunstmuseum Basel, and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Her work is in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Albertina in Vienna.