Bryan R. Monte
AQ25 Summer 2019 Art Review

Maria Lassnig — Ways of Being, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 6 April to 11 August 2019.

I was pleased but somewhat perturbed to make my first acquaintance with the work of painter, sculpture, and animator Maria Lassnig at the Amsterdam Stedelijk retrospective April last. I was pleased by the depth and artistry of the work on display. I was perturbed that I had not heard of her previously.

Stedelijk curator Beatrice von Bormann helped explain at the press viewing why perhaps I hadn’t previously heard of Lassnig. The Stedelijk only owns two of her works and Lassnig had had only one show there, back in the 1990s. In addition, Bormann put the difficulty of being a female artist in context by quoting the statistics that in the US musems, 87% of the artists are male and 85% are white. Furthermore, according to artist Jacqueline de Jong, quoted in an article entitled: ‘Onsporen en verdraaien’ in the VPRO Gids #22 (1 to 7 June 2019), only four per cent of the Amsterdam Stedelijk’s collection is by female artists.

Despite this level of discrimination, however, Lassnig during her lifetime produced a large body of work, represented in this retrospective by 250 pieces including 80 works on paper and eight videos/films/animations, many on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. Lassnig called her style or technique ‘body awareness’ which to this reviewer appears in her portraits as more of an ‘out of body experience’ as her torso floats above the New York City skyline in Woman Power, (oil on canvas, 1979). Other disembodied images including one of the exhibition’s promotional images, a painting of a woman with a white face with no hair and the back of the head missing such as in Selbst met Mehrschweinchen, Eng: Self with Guinea Pig, (oil on canvas, 2000). These facial images are chillingly reminiscent of the recent Sophia AI interface created by a Hong Kong technology firm.

From these paintings there’s no mistaking Lassnig’s message and her realization of the difficulty of her struggle. If one enters the exhibit at gallery 1.1 at the end of her career, instead of at gallery 1.15, at the beginning, the first image one is confronted with is that of Lassnig with a gun in each hand: one pointed directly at the viewer and the other pointed at her own head entitled Du oder ich, Eng: You or me, (oil on canvas, 2005). According to Bormann, the exhibition has been organized in reverse chronologically, and thematically. One starts here in the 2000s and works one’s way back through time, room by room, to the 1940s, when Lassnig began painting.

However, if one begins at 1.15 with her paintings in the 40s and 50s, it is easier to see Lassnig’s development and what she achieved during her sixty-five year engagement/struggle with painting, sculpture and animation/film. Her work in galleries 1.15 and 1.16 includes paintings with cubist blocks Flachenteilung, klein, Eng: Field Divison, small, (gouache on cardboard, 1953), and abstract strokes of colour next to or on top of each other such as the rectangular white with green centre Body Housing (oil on canvas, 1951) and orange and ochre rectangular brushstrokes of Tachismus 4 (oil on canvas, 1958). These rooms exhibit her exploration of cubism, expressionism, and abstract expressionism.

In the ’60s and ’70s, she would later abandon these non-human styles for her own more realistic, but somewhat disembodied ‘body awareness’ technique in which she would paint her body with a variety of quite realistic but dramatic physical complications, for example, Zelfportrait mit telefon, (oil on canvas, 1973), with her head at table height, the phone off the hook and the cord wrapped around her neck.

In this period Lassnig also created a series of animations and films. These provide some comic relief in this otherwise very serious exhibition. One animation is entitled Self-Portrait (1971). It begins with a woman’s face obscured by dresser drawers, which then fill and drip with foam. Next, her face is obscured briefly by a wooden beam, then a camera, and after that by a device that covers just her mouth, nose and eyes. Finally, her face is freed from these blockages and she begins to imagine herself as a more beautiful and idealized film star, first with her hair up like Audrey Hepburn’s, and then in waves like Marilyn Monroe’s until a Monty Pythonesque fist and a thumb comes down from above and pushes this idealized face back into a more realistic representation of Lassnig.

In the mid to late-1970s, Lassnig also painted partial, disembodied imaginary self-portraits, one with her body entangled by the mythic snake Woman Laocoön, (oil on canvas, 1976) similar in style to the Vatican’s Laocoon and his Sons sculpture. However, unlike the Vatican’s work, Lassnig’s female figure in the painting battles alone with the serpent. Other portraits in this time period include a move into disembodied torsos, including one with a hand covering a vagina and another with a head, with its mouth wide open, shouting, with hands coming from the back of its head covering its eyes Ohne Titel, Schreiende Frau, Eng: Untitled, Screaming Woman, (pencil and watercolours on paper, 1981).

Another method she used to depict her struggle as a woman artist was to paint human forms trapped between different planes such as in With My Head Through the Wall, (oil on canvas, 1985). In the ’80s she would also paint anti-militaristic subjects such as Rocket Base Missiles #2 (oil on canvas, 1987) and Atommütters (oil on canvas, 1984), with two women holding small, dead children wrapped in black shrouds in their arms. In the early 21st century she would continue to create such confrontational paintings such as Profitanski (oil on canvas, 2001) which includes images of green birds laddled into her head and her hand over her vagina and the Du oder ich painting mentioned previously.

Time will tell if Lassnig’s struggle will yield more female artists’ works in the Amsterdam Stedelijk’s collection. If Touria Meliani’s, Amsterdam city councillor for the arts, comments about Reins Wolf, recently appointmented as the Stedelijk’s new director, in a Stedelijk press release from 7 June 2019 are any indication: … heb ik alle vertrouwen in dat met hem de verschillende verhalen die nodig verteld moeten worden, een plek krijgen. (‘I completely trust that with him, the different stories that must be told, will receive a place.’), perhaps an increase in the percentage of women’s works at the Stedelijk is finally on the cards. AQ