Did Maria ever meet Louise? Lassnig and Bourgeois on the body-beautiful (not)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Maria Lassnig ‘Double self – portrait’

Louise Bourgeois


Maria Lassnig, meet Louise Bourgeois, Louise meet Maria.

I am fascinated to know whether these two women actually did meet during the 1970’s whilst they were living and working in New York. They both equally scare and intrigue me, and I’m not sure how I would survive sitting next to either at a dinner party. Too much honesty, too much information, no apparent fear of what anyone thinks. (I am ashamed to say that I often curb my tongue for fear of how others may react and reserve these thoughts for my artworks.) Perhaps they benefited from the boldness of advancing age. Or maybe it was just that Maria and Louise had the guts to put it all out there, age or no age. 

The reason I mention this is that I have just seen an exhibition of Lassnig’s paintings at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona (a very unexpected place for her to show up, but I am hugely thankful). I can’t help mentally comparing her with the, until recently, better known Bourgeois – both are tough cookies; fiercely independent women who expose their innermost thoughts and feelings in the most confronting of ways, taking no prisoners. 

They were virtually contemporaries and lived and worked to ripe old ages. Bourgeois (1911-2010) was born in France but moved permanently to New York in the 1940’s. Lassnig (1919-2014) was Austrian and spent from 1968-1980 in New York before returning to her homeland. Anyway, enough art history. I only mention it because it places them as starting their careers in a pre-feminist era and having hit middle age by the time full stream feminism arrived in New York.  Female artists in following decades can thank them for paving the way – Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville come to mind immediately. And what about Marina Abramovich or even Marlene Dumas? 

Neither Bourgeois nor Lassnig had any qualms about representing images of female private body parts. In Maria’s case they were obvious self portraits; with Louise they were presumably so, at least metaphorically.

Lassnig ‘You or Me’

Bourgeois ‘Temper Tantrum’

Lassnig ‘Speech Grid’


Back to Lassnig, because this is the exhibition that I have just seen. She is best known for her brutally honest ‘body awareness’ self portraits. They depict how her body feels, rather than how it looks, and this is the same feeling I get from Bourgeois even though I haven’t heard it explained this way. In Lassnig’s images limbs or sections may be missing if they don’t feature in her awareness at the time. The portraits often show her as either a machine or animal. Woman meets alpine cow. Half woman, half sci-fi character.

Having gorged myself on Lassnig reproductions in recent years I was in suspense as to how they would compare in real life. In my experience it goes either one way or the other – some artists’ works look far better in reality whilst others hold no surprises from the reproductions. There’s no middle ground. 

Unfortunately, apart from the scale, seeing the Lassnig originals is not hugely more satisfying than viewing the works online. The image is the image and there’s not a lot extra to see in terms of paint surface. She herself has said that she uses a lot of turps/mineral spirits and wipes bits off and repaints on top. This, combined with the fact that there is white mixed with most of her colours, gives her paint a dry chalky quality. It’s perfectly appropriate, and she is known for her unique pastel-like palette. Marlene Dumas’ works have a similar look, and I do like her paintings, but it’s the same deal – great in reproduction but not hugely better in reality apart from the fact that you are seeing them at actual size.

Yes, the Lassnigs are great works, but I didn’t see anyone poring over the surface or spending large amounts of time with individual pieces. They’re just not that kind of paintings. It’s about her vision, drawing and composition as well as the fresh fluidity of the mark-making. And if the reproductions here look a little washy and slightly blurry, that’s the way they are in reality. 

I must mention Lassnig’s videos, which is what she was doing whilst she was in New York. In one she sings a multi verse ditty she has composed about her life story, has raided her fancy dress cupboard and made drawn animations. Unfortunately I can’t embed it here as permission has not been granted but here is the Youtube link to her Kantate video.

If you get the chance go and see her. I don’t think you will be disappointed, but you if you’ve already seen the images online you won’t be quite as thrilled as you expected either.

PS here is a link to the Artsy web page devoted to the wonderful Bourgeois.


Lassnig ‘Science Fiction self portrait’






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