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Maria Lassing / National Gallery Prague

The first thing that struck me on entering this first major Maria Lassnig exhibition on Czech soil, was the insightful, poetic quality of Lassnig’s writing, rather than the artworks. “The murderers are yet to hatch” she says in excerpts from her diaries, written in the 1940s. “You, artist, who bear the original sin of humankind, be mindful of it, because you cannot unload it anywhere, not even in your artworks. And each night, in each darkness, it’s sunk into your heart again; each morning you rise with this burden on your shoulders.”

Adam Budak’s generously representative retrospective, prepared with the cooperation of the Maria Lassnig Foundation in Vienna and the Tate Gallery Liverpool, is a powerfully absorbing narrative of Lassnig’s lifelong wrestling with the burden of her art. She gets it onto the canvas or paper with humour, intensity, integrity, fearlessness and a ruthless curiosity, often only to see it struggle off the canvas or paper again. A series of paintings from the 1980s, Inside and Outside the Canvas, depicts figures struggling to escape the restraints of the canvas and other determinate spaces. In Inside and Outside the Canvas IV an intrepid figure pauses, half out of the white field, like a child emerging from a swimming pool. “The edge of the canvas is there as a boundary” Lassnig says, “what a pity.” She was both mindful and confrontational as regards this boundary and boundaries in general, political, sexual and physical. There’s a very revealing photograph of her taken in her studio in 1983 by Kurt-Michael Westerman, in which she’s reclining along the painted body of one of her self-portraits spread on the studio floor, her standard thick brush poised at the portrait’s head in a kind of affectionate mockery of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

Throughout her long artistic life, Lassnig was obsessed with self-portraiture and some of the most well-known of these works are included in the exhibition. Self-Portrait With Staff painted in 1971 has been granted a curtained-off section all to itself. Here, the fifty-two year old Lassnig, bare chested, sits with chin slightly self-consciously raised toward us, gripping the staff whose ends lie beyond the edge of the canvas, like a model sitting for a portrait. Many of Lassnig’s self-portraits are double portraits and here, an image of Lassnig’s older self reaches out from the canvas behind her and rests her hands on the younger Lassnig’s shoulders. The effect of this doubling is ticklishly ambiguous, perhaps both a reminder of Lassnig’s own mortality, and a suggestion – the older figure’s hands seem poised to swivel the younger self in another direction – that she redirect her attention elsewhere, perhaps away from the institutional art world beyond the canvas, back to her own subjectivity.

The less ambiguous, more humorously expressive Double Self-Portrait With Camera 1974 is another well-known work. Here, in front of Lassnig standing poised with one of the cameras she hated so much – in the 1990s she called artists who use photography in their work ‘prosthesis artists’ – is Lassnig slumped glumly in a chair, her face deformed into the concertina of an old-fashioned box camera. The standing Lassnig embodies the kind of objective representation produced by a camera, while the slumped double expresses the inner woman, with all her hatred of photography, the subjective view typical of her ‘body awareness’ paintings.

Double Self-Portrait With Camera, 1974

Another outstanding work among so many outstanding works is the Expressive Self-Portrait 1945. A young woman, naked to the waist, wearing a thick necklace whose beads are larger than the dark pupils of her eyes, composed of short thickly laid-on, often disconnected brushstrokes of muted oils, stares at herself, brush poised in the act of trying to capture her own essence. The tension of this search is apparent, but offset by a kind of wonderment at the process itself which gives this self-portrait such a refreshingly innocent quality. It makes an interesting contrast with one of Lassnig’s last self-portraits, Self-Portrait With Brush completed in 2013. Just the head and neck are visible here, the mouth closed tight and the eyes slits of decisiveness, the left arm, just outlined against the white canvas seems to wield the brush like a knife, as if Lassnig were trying to slash her way out of the debilitation she endured during the last years of her life, or is taking a swipe at the institutional art world she’d come to despise.

Budak’s exhibition shows how Lassnig’s art evolved over the decades, and how she experimented with different approaches – though very much in her own way – such as surrealist, abstract and cubist techniques. Many examples of which are fascinating, such as the pencil Self-Portrait As An Ear and Body Awareness from 1949 and 1948, both of which exemplify her technique of cubistic disassemblage of body parts into spatial components. I’m no fan of Cubism but Lassnig’s version of it, a kind of soft, overlapping geometry, is definitely more appealing. But it’s the Expressionistic portraits that are most potent, and Lassnig was producing these to the end of her life.

Among what she termed her ‘Science Fiction’ portraits of the 1980s and 90s, many involving Lassnig wearing virtual reality headsets, there’s a watercolour entitled Lady With A Brain. During this period she was fascinated by the question of which parts, and to what degree the body was electrical. Lady With A Brain has this apparently most essential item hanging like a woolly hat off the side of her head, and though her face is rather cadaverous, the lady is obviously alive and kicking. It reminds us of all those news reports of shocked neurologists finding people functioning with severely diminished brain matter, and in some cases, precious little of observable grey matter at all. Lassnig’s Lady sceptically undercuts the primacy of the brain in human life and as the determinant of personality. Close by is Pink Electricity: Electric Self-Portrait, which for me occupies a place in Lassnig’s work equivalent to Sunflowers in Vincent van Gogh’s, in which she shows herself as nothing but a great blaze of light dripping with energy. “The only true reality is my feelings, played out within the confines of my body” Lassnig maintained. In Pink Electricity she breaks out of those confines with uninhibited glee.

Pink Electricity is a realization of Lassnig’s idea of a ‘mysticism of the physical,’ in contrast, and providing a break in the varied but unremitting intensity of the exhibition, are examples of her flirtation with Realism. This for her was a way of expressing her concerns about the world, the role of women, and sometimes simply an expression of joy in the pleasures of the senses. Double Protection is a charming little crayon and pencil drawing of the artist sunbathing, but she’s closely fenced in her sunny compound with two large pitbulls. It’s a sardonic piece, playing on the ‘Double Protection’ always touted by the manufacturers of sun-cream and the nervous concern of the moneyed classes to shut out the rest of the world. In a similarly sardonic vein is the magnificent Woman Power showing a giant naked woman (guess who?) striding like a colossus through an American city. The lady’s in no apparent hurry for, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey “she was master of the world, though she was not quite sure what to do next. But she would think of something.”

Lassnig, the restless experimenter, was always looking for new ways to express herself, and the exhibition also features her short animated film My Animation Is An Artform, complemented by drawings for the film. The Statue Of Liberty Sneezing is both an affectionate nod to the great statue and a comic reminder of the physical fragility of the American Empire. She was an incurable artoholic, even her hobby was sculpture, which she says she simply didn’t have strong enough hands for. And though some of the sculptural works on show are rather uninspiring, there’s a very arresting exception which is Glass In Black Head. The head is of course Lassnig’s, but it’s almost unrecognizable as such. The Head in fact looks like an ancient bust excavated from some sunken city, all of the features blurred by time and tide, apart from the mouth, a sharp black fissure, a narrow vent in which is secreted some dim unutterable logos.

We can listen to Lassnig’s uncompromising and somewhat curmudgeonly expressions in two interviews playing on screens at the far end of the exhibition space. These are fascinating. Scotching any doubts, if we had any, that she was consistently herself, a consistent, faithful carrier and interpreter of the burden of art she speaks of in her diaries. In old age, as in youth she ‘had no skin’. “All my nerves are exposed.” Budak’s exhibition shows just how true this was, and how much she achieved through her indefatigable embrace of this condition.

Maria Lassnig 1919-2014
National Gallery in Prague
Trade Fair Palace
Dukelsykých hrdinu 47
Prague 7
Until 17th June 2018

Images courtesy of National Gallery Prague.