Three Ways of Being, oil on canvas, 2004, by Maria Lassnig
The Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, who has died aged 94, represented the naked body with startling honesty. Fluid strokes of bright paint vividly suggested the colour and texture of her own ageing skin, although the personas that she adopted were often extremely ambiguous. Lassnig achieved recognition from the 1940s onwards throughout mainland Europe and, later, the US but it was not until 2008, at the age of nearly 90, that she was given her first solo exhibition in Britain, to critical acclaim.
She was born in the Carinthian town of Kappel am Krappfeld. Her parents' marriage was not a happy one, and in 1926 she moved with her mother to Klagenfurt. As she later described, her early experiences had a lasting effect, and, contrary to her mother's expectations, she decided that "a man, a child is not my destiny". This was not to mean, however, that she was uninterested in the relations between the sexes, as her art repeatedly revealed.
She entered Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts during the darkest days of the second world war. Her work at this time was sombre, technically accomplished and relatively conservative, though it had a nervous, expressionistic quality that was alien to official Nazi painting.
After 1945 Lassnig began to absorb foreign influences: cubism, for example, as well as a more up-to-date abstract style, characterised by improvisatory and gestural qualities, known as art informel. The grotesque anatomy of Sex-self-portrait (1949), in which fragments of the human body peep out from flat cubist planes, gave way to the scrawls and smudges of Informel (1951), an evocative drawing in which pencil rubbings evoke, rather than represent, a human face.
Maria Lassnig in the 1970s. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images
Lassnig's critical success during this period was crowned by the award of a scholarship in 1951 to study in Paris, the first of several stays in the city. Together with her compatriot, the painter Arnulf Rainer, she met the luminaries of surrealism, including the poet Benjamin Péret and the movement's leader, André Breton. The influence of surrealism is evident in her work of the 1950s and 60s. Anthropomorphic Landscape (1955) is a relatively anodyne picture, soon to be succeeded by harsher, more mechanistic imagery, devoid of any distracting background. Disturbing, robotic forms dominate Science Fiction (1963), while in Breakfast With an Ear (1967) the severed body part is juxtaposed with an array of blenders and juicers – ammunition for the modern housewife.
The imagery of the consumer impressed Lassnig even more deeply after her move to New York in 1968. Modern society's ubiquitous plastic wrapping is visible in a still life with fruit as early as 1971, but soon afterwards Lassnig transferred it to an altogether grander subject: the body itself. The Self-portrait Encased in Plastics (1972) was the first of the material's many ambivalent appearances with the human figure, as an image of preservation or suffocation, an ornament or a barrier representing isolation.
These "body-awareness paintings" transformed figures into expressions of the artist's physical sensations: "the only true reality is my feelings, played out within the confines of my body".
The type of distortion varies greatly: limbs are elongated, or truncated; noses turned into pigs' snouts; mouths pulled into shocking grimaces. On other occasions Lassnig's own strong features are recognisable, as she stares at us, while brandishing a pair of revolvers, or gapes blindfolded, with a cooking pot on her head.
Domestic implements are not the only instruments of oppression in Lassnig's work. The 16mm films that she shot in the 1970s often explore feminist issues, including the conventional relationship between the male artist and the female model, wittily reversed in Art Education (1976).
The Illegitimate Bride, 2007, by Maria Lassnig
Other characters, ranging from the figures of Adam and God in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the artist herself, struggle to free themselves, whether from the weight of art history in Art Education or from the predictions of the ghoulish fortune-teller in Palmistry (1973). In Lassnig's world, nothing is fixed, least of all one's destiny — and yet, despite the serious anti-patriarchal themes, the films are jokey and ironic, their animation often recalling Monty Python more than Simone de Beauvoir.
Lassnig's rising status was recognised in 1980 with an appointment at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where she became the first professor of painting in the German-speaking world, and by a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This was followed by participation at Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982, and by individual shows at the Pompidou centre in Paris and other prestigious European museums. In 1988 she was awarded the Grand Austrian state prize.
Her first solo exhibition in Britain came at the Serpentine gallery in London. The familiar imagery reappeared – most strikingly, the naked Lassnig in a wedding veil made from plastic, her face lost in shadow – and yet most poignant of all were the pictures of lovers. Wrestling in their embraces, sometimes not looking at each other, they conformed to no romantic ideals, but nonetheless displayed great delicacy: as Lassnig said at the time: "I am interested in painting the finer feelings."
Perhaps Lassnig's most eloquent statement about herself was the semi-animated film Cantata, made in 1992. In this feature, she tunelessly sings her way through an amusing autobiographical ballad while donning a succession of outlandish costumes, parodying the cities in which she has lived. As Lassnig puts it, while miming her favourite activities of skiing and biking: "I just don't feel my life has nearly ended … I know it's art so dear that keeps me young and clear." She remained vibrantly alive and active for another 22 years and in 2013 was awarded the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale.
There is currently an exhibition of her work at MoMA PS1 in New York.
• Maria Lassnig, artist, born 8 September 1919; died 6 May 2014
Maria Lassnig was born in Kappel am Krappfeld, Austria on 8 September 1919. Her mother gave birth to her out of wedlock and later married a much older man, but their relationship was troubled and Lassnig was raised mostly by her grandmother. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during World War II.
Though Lassnig began her career painting abstract works, she always created self-portraits. One of her earliest was Expressive Self-Portrait (1945), which she painted only weeks after fleeing Vienna. In 1948 Lassnig coined the term "body consciousness" to describe her practice. In this style, Lassnig only depicted the parts of her body that she actually felt as she worked. As such, many of her self-portraits depict figures that are missing body parts or use unnatural colours. By the 1960s Lassnig turned away from abstract painting altogether and began to focus more wholly on the human body and psyche. Since that time she created hundreds of self-portraits.
From 1968 to 1980, Lassnig lived in New York City. From 1970 to 1972 she studied animated film at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. During this time she made six short films, including Selfportrait (1971) and Couples (1972). Her most famous film, however, Kantate (also known as The Ballad of Maria Lassnig), was produced in 1992 when she was seventy-three years old. Kantate (1992) depicts a filmic self-portrait of the artist set to songs and music.
In 1980, she returned to become a professor at the Vienna University of Applied Arts, becoming the first female professor of painting in a German-speaking country. She was a chair at the University until 1997. In 1997 she also published a book of her drawings entitled Die Feder ist die Schwester des Pinsels (or The Pen is the Sister of the Paintbrush).
Lassnig's later solo exhibitions included It's art that keeps one ever young, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, (2010), 'Maria Lassnig. Films’, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York NY, (2011), and The Location of Pictures, Deichtorhallen; Hamburg (2013).
After 70 years of painting, Maria Lassnig is finally getting her first New York show and it is beautiful. Maria Lassnig's show recently opened at MOMA PS1 and it is an almost complete retrospective of one woman's work from 1942 to 2011. It is a pleasure to walk the gallery and see how her work changed and yet how it keeps a common line through her color choices and subject matter.
As you actually enter the museum you are greeted with Selbstportraet mit Sprechblase (Self-Portrait with Speech Bubble) 2006. It vibrates in tones of pink and bright green and invites visitors to think about what a self-portrait means. In this age of selfie culture, what does it mean when the subject has much more to say beyond what's visible on the outside?
When you walk into her gallery, you notice the bright lighting, white walls and white floors. Space is obliterated and you are forced to focus solely on her work. On the far wall as you enter the main gallery you see Du, Oder Ich? (You or Me) 2005. A painting of Maria holding a gun to her head in one hand and a gun pointed at the viewer in the other. It is clear that this woman has something to say.
Walk to the right and move through the gallery in a counter-clockwise direction to view her work chronologically. One of the first works you see is Selbstporträt (Self-Portrait) 1942. This was her first self-portrait done while she was still in school and reflects the time period with its Rembrandt style and color choices. Maria wasn't satisfied. Three years later and to the right you'll find Selbstporträt expressiv (Expressive Self-Portrait) 1945. It is only three years but a world of difference. You see the beginnings of what she would go on to explore throughout her seven-decade career. It is what she termed Body Awareness and she wanted to capture how she felt inside and not how she looked on the outside. The lines are quick and the paint is rough and in places incomplete (she wanted only to paint the parts of herself that she felt) you also begin to see the color choices she goes on to make throughout her career. The bright greens, pinks and reds and her focus begins to concentrate on the eyes.
The room features painting from the 1950s and early '60s that showcase her interest in forms and color and you can see influences by Ellsworth Kelly. Maria had left her native Austria for Paris around this time and begins to be heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism from New York. In the next room you see work in which she placed large canvases on the floor and began to paint lines in boundless directions based on the way her body moved that day. She would go back and name them afterwards one of my favorites here is Napoleon und Brigitte Bardot 1961. She also begins to explore the inside of her body with two paintings titled Ohne Titel (Untitled) c. 1960.
The next room features work that begins to examine trauma, feminism and probably her frustration with the art world. Take a look at Selbstportrait unter Plastik 1972 andDreifaches Selbstporträt / New Self 1970-72. It is around this time that she moved to New York and stays and paints for the next decade. Walk into the next room and you see a selection of her watercolors. Here the room is dimly lit to reinforce the fact that she would keep her eyes closed and paint from her minds eye in these quick studies. Again she was interested in the eyes as a tool and painting from the inside out. Check out Was mir beim Wort "Liebe" einfiel (What the word "love" made me think of) 1980.
The next room showcases her work in which she paints the body as mechanical with superhuman or alien abilities. She becomes interested in technology and science and the impact of television imagery. You can see that in Transparentes Selbstporträt, (Transparent Self Portrait) 1987, Kuechenbraut (Kitchen Bride) 1988 and Kleines Sciencefiction-Selbstporträt (Small Science Fiction Self Portrait) 1995.
The last room features paintings that explore her thoughts on her own mortality. It also features another one of my favorites and one of her most recent titled Vom Tode gezeichnet (Marked By Death) 2011. It shows the artist painting herself in death. The bright orange color feels in stark contrast to the subject matter.
The show makes you think about all that she has seen since she started painting in 1942 from technological advances to the rise of feminism. One of her lifetime goals was to have a show in New York. Now at 94 she has finally been given her chance and it is long overdue. Marie Lassnig now at MOMA PS1 through May 25.