Walking into Maria Lassnig’s retrospective is like being surrounded by a visually-walled autobiography. The forty paintings on display convey such a strong and varied range of emotion and feeling, as well as painting styles, it’s as though you can read her inner-most thoughts. All her later self-portraits are painted in a distinctive, vigorous colour palette which screams personality along with depth of apprehension. So visceral in their nature they almost reach out and grab you with their depths of dexterity.
Exploring the personal trauma, surreal thoughts and nightmares she had experienced, Lassnig was quoted as saying “the only true reality in my lifetime are my feelings, played out within the confines of my body.”
The Tate has selected paintings spanning her 70 year career bringing to our attention the time she spent in Paris testing out new Cubist-inspired forms. Then back to her homeland in Austria, before finally leaving for New York where she stayed for the rest of her life.
On display are early paintings created during this problematic period where she found her style of figurative painting out of favour during the Abstract Expressionist movement. They grasp at the inner turmoil she was feeling at the time, ‘Self Portrait with Staff’ 1971, shows a rod or staff piercing her body and coming out the other side. An attempt to convey the negative emotions she was carrying around with her. Lassnig was very much in touch with herself and I can’t help but consider the probable influence of performative artists such as Yayoi Kusama whose rich body of provocative works also grappled with the pain and pleasures of the body, letting loose some form of her ‘true self’.
Lassnig’s fascination with her body determined her line of enquiry into ‘body awareness’, trying to paint the way the body feels from the inside. Similar to Francis Bacon in that respect. Her portraits become increasingly abstracted into strange and convoluted incantations where she physically attempts to inhabit her feelings. ‘Self Portrait with Saucepan’ 1995, references her conflicted identity and female politics of the household, similar to ‘Kitchen Bride’ 1985 where Lassnig has morphed into a cheese grater.
Technology perplexed her as seen in ‘Small Science Fiction Portrait’ 1985, as well as grappling with the demons of the world such as war and death, ‘Fury of War’ 1995 is a perfect example. Adjusting to her mothers death and her own wellbeing impacted many of her paintings, ‘Lady with Brain’ 1990 mesmerises with its woe and grief. As Lassnig aged, the intense nature of her paintings only became stronger. Showing her face and body in different positions and viewpoints, naked and vulnerable in ‘Hospital’ 2005, painted from her hospital bed. Her final self portrait tells the tale of time ‘Self Portrait with Brush’ 2010-13, lingering in your memory and she would have had it no other way.
The Tate’s third exhibition presents a very current body of work by Latvian artist, Ella Kruglyanskaya bringing another contemporary element to the subject of figurative portraiture. Entirely fictional, Kruglyanskaya, doesn’t paint self-portraits or people she knows, she creates characters, mainly overt female figures, and places them into energetic scenarios on canvas. Female relationships and friendships form the foundation of her varied subject matters, ‘Lemons and Lips’ 2011 (below). ‘Girl with Sunglasses’ 2008, shows a startled young girl’s face on the beach and the mirrored reflection in her sunglasses is of a beach scene with people staring at her.
Men rarely feature.
She has a strong interest in close observations and this isn’t just limited to female figures but still-life objects too, or at least the idea of seeing an object but as a secondary piece of information. Her Etruscan-style vases ‘Lidded Pitcher’ 2016, are objects on a painted page of a book, rather than seen in direct situ. This makes me think that all her paintings are in fact still-life’s, within themselves, particularly her character-based works. They are ready-made, picture-perfect moments graphically recorded in a 2d format. Voyeuristic in approach, with double meanings, innuendos and puns all interacting on a cinematic stage.
The ideal precursor to both the Lassnig and Bacon exhibitions, by way that Kruglyanskaya has conveyed the representation of women as mere visual objects in our age of popular culture. But as we know there is usually more than what meets the eye…