Maria Lassnig

(b. 1919)

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(1919– )

Austrian painter and film-maker, born in Carinthia. After studying at the School of Fine Arts in Vienna, she went to Paris on a scholarship in 1951, when she met leading Surrealists including André Breton. From 1968 to 1978 she lived in New York. In 1980 she was appointed Chair of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the first woman ever to have such a post in a German-speaking country. Lassnig's paintings are based on what she calls ‘body-awareness’, which she puts in opposition to the external view of ‘retinal awareness’. In her late works, which she calls ‘drastic paintings’, she claims to have conjoined the two forms of perception. Unlike many figurative painters today, she never works from photographs. For this reason, in spite of her admiration for Francis Bacon, she describes him as ‘not a kindred spirit’. Yet the viewer is likely to perceive some similarity in the two painters' chilling vision of the human condition and fascination with the capacity of paint to simulate flesh. This is a theme of one of her most powerful paintings, Iron Virgin and Fleshly Virgin (2004). It is a double self-portrait, Lassnig as both artist and model: the austere grey iron virgin in her old woman's cap brings to life the fleshly puling infant virgin in a startling metaphor for the combination of detachment and engagement involved in the making of art. Lassnig has also made animated and live action films. The best known of these, Cantata (1992), has the artist singing an account of her life and work in a faux-naif folksy style, playing the ‘feisty old woman’. An exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2008 provoked widespread astonishment that her work was so little known.

Further Reading

J. Heizer, ‘Inside Out’, Frieze Magazine (November 2006)Serpentine Gallery, Maria Lassnig (2008)

Subjects: Art.

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