Maria Lassnig: Portrait of the Artist


Maria Lassnig was always
searching for new experiences in colors, in themes, in the
expression of sensations. She painted it for us and she said ‘I’m painting
not only for myself I’m painting for the audience. So people can learn
something about reality and not only about the
outside world reality but also about the
reality within.’ She was always very
strong-minded she was completely
devoted only to her work and she had this
incredible visual curiosity. I think what is really
astonishing about her whole career is
how she started off. Nobody would have ever
guessed that this child could once become a
cosmopolitan, avant-garde artist. She was born in 1919 as
an illegitimate child and the first six years she
spent with her grandmother. A certain kind of poverty in
the very beginning of her life had a big impact on her. Her mother of course was
always very supportive so Maria would get an art
education from ten years on. She finished school
and became a schoolteacher high up in the mountains
and then at 22 she decided to become an artist
and she took a bike and drove from Carinthia
in the mountains with the bike to Vienna
to the Art Academy. Art at the academy at that
time was very old-fashioned there was no influence
from international modern contemporary art at all in the
academies in the Nazi period. Everything was forbidden.
There was no Van Gogh there was even no Cézanne there was no surrealism,
nothing at all. It was just landscape
painting and portraits with dark brown colors. What did she do?
She painted with bright colors and the professor said
‘No you have to leave my class because it’s too revolutionary.’ There is a certain tradition
in Austria about colors Kokoschka and
Herbert Boeckl. Boeckl was a teacher in Vienna
at the academy where she was studying. But her way to use the colors
was really something she found out for herself. She had the impression that
she could create colors by just looking at them and to transform them.
That was the moment when she knew that she
has found something. She used to say ‘I discovered the
principles of modernism by myself by my deep paint or color seeing. 1945 was the end of the war
and she would have a small studio in Klagenfurt and this was the meeting point for many poets, artists, musicians. Many of them very
influenced by surrealism. Young Arnulf Rainer
was coming there and that was also an
important relationship to her, they would travel together
to Paris, meet Paul Célan, but not only meet Paul Célan,
also meet the Surrealists meet André Breton. It was actually in December 1960
when she moved to Paris to live there for eight years. You actually see the first painting
she did there is totally different because Maria was someone,
when she moved to another place she totally started anew. The first paintings that
she did in Paris ’60 and ’61 in these paintings,
this whole relationship between her body,
the painting, the canvas, the space around the canvas,
the space around her body that these things really
came to a form which then stayed with her
throughout her whole career. Maria Lassnig found out that
in a maximum of concentration she can express
on the canvas what she’s feeling in
the inside of herself the body sensations the points where there is tension or sometimes also pain. Body awareness came
out of her childhood. She always said to me
‘Look Hans Werner, there is the outer world. This outer world is really huge
and amazing and big but the inner world,
when you close your eyes the inner world is so huge
you can go on and on and on.’ It’s an abstract form of the body how she felt it and how she
expressed the self portraits. These are almost self-portraits and they are put together
in a very abstract way. This is something
absolutely new in the history of art. It was always a very
direct relationship between the body
and the canvas. She’s a very spontaneous painter, you will not see paintings
in many layers with her it’s more the line in color
and very fast painting. Watercolors or drawings of
course were even the most spontaneous possibilities to create work. In the ’60s she met Nancy Spero
and Nancy Spero told her ‘Come to New York we have this
women’s liberation movement and everything is free.’ She came to New York and
totally changed her life again. The great thing about
New York for her was she discovered feminism. She was a founding member
of the Women/Artists/Filmmakers a group of 10 women, among
others Carolee Schneemann who worked together who
supported each other. These exchanges were
very important for her and it would be mainly in
this period in the 1970s that she was really devote a
lot of her time to filmmaking. Stop motion pictures as well as
experimental pictures as well as pictures with
a certain documentary aspect. When she started teaching,
it was 1980 at the Art Academy
here in Vienna. She came back from New York
and changed her style again. She stopped with film
and started painting in a new expressionist style. The professorship of the
academy enabled her to work more continuously
and consolidate her oeuvre and the complexity of her
oeuvre came in these years. She was always a
major Austrian artist but she was looking for
much more recognition and for true and profound
international recognition. This only came late in her life. The first international
shows in Switzerland and Holland in the 1990s. The participation at documenta and following that a
major thing was the show at the Serpentine Gallery
with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. She never wanted her a
painting to be considered feminist, even though it is. She didn’t want to be pigeonholed,
she wanted to be compared with the best of her craft,
of her art, of her field. She wanted to be compared
with Baselitz, with Gerhard Richter with Lucian Freud,
Francis Bacon; these kind of artists. I think that Maria Lassnig is
really a contemporary artist. She doesn’t look back
with her paintings and she was curious
about many things about the world. She was finding this new
dimension for art in the sensation,
in the feelings in the body awareness. I think that she is more a
painter of the 21st century than of the 20th century. You also see how strongly
she influences young artists. She was so ahead of
time with certain things that it was just not
understood in the 20th century. All her life she was
alone in her studio. She says ‘time is no matter at all
while I’m painting’ she said, ‘because you are actually
then in a timeless period or even in a timeless landscape where time is not
going on. It just stops.’

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