Guys, bring a helmet

looks back on the life of the late Maria Lassnig and her powerful work

Photo courtesy of Maria Lassnig

Photo courtesy of Maria Lassnig

This September would have been Austrian artist Maria Lassnig’s ninety-fifth birthday. Lassnig once said “I’ve never celebrated my birthday. Then you don’t notice it.”

Lassnig was an artist who seemed to conquer the ‘style over substance’ dilemma of contemporary art. She invented the term “body awareness”, demonstrated in her nudes about “bodily sensations”, depicting the feelings of the body in “static postures”.
Her art is full of honesty (she doesn’t shy away from sagging breasts), even if some of the figures are distorted. This makes her work refreshing and attractive to audiences in today’s body-conscious society and although never openly so, Lassnig’s art has feminist undertones.

She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna at a particularly troubled time in history with the dark shadow of the Second World War hanging over Europe. She was quickly bored by the limitations of the Nazi conservative techniques taught in the Academy and turned to cubism and art informel which lead to her “body awareness” work. She returned to the Academy as a professor in 1980.

Lassnig once said, “I’m a researcher, not a painter,” which is demonstrated in her bold gestural brush strokes and controversial subject matter in paintings such as the self-portrait You, or Me?.

Here, the subject (Lassnig) stares, naked at the viewer, guns pointed at her head and ours. The fear in her eyes is alarming and her vulnerability is expressed in her uncovered body, the soft pink tones of her skin and her open legs. This is a powerful image to which male viewers were “advised to bring a helmet”. This is not just a painting of vulnerability but of anger.

Lassnig never married or had children, after witnessing the unhappy marriage and separation of her parents. She did, however, start to rediscover feelings of romance or companionship in later life, seen in her paintings of couples embracing. The artist questions traditional gender stereotypes and relationships through her films with a dry humour in her film Art Education in which the relationship between the male artist and female model is reversed.

Lassnig exhibited internationally with exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum Ludwig and, in 2008, had her first solo exhibition in Britain at the Serpentine. Lassnig was recognised within her lifetime. She was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris in 1951 and in 1988 she won a Grand Austrian State Prize as well as the Golden Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 at the Venice Biennale.

Coming before the Actionist Movement, with her provocative Post-War art, Lassnig was a highly influential woman and it’s not only time to take notice of her but to pay homage to her substantial and fascinatingly honest art.

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