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It was the painter and filmmaker Maria Lassnig who pioneered the theory of ‘body awareness’. In her paintings – as well as in her films – the human figures depicted – many of them self-portraits – often appear incomplete, sometimes in unnatural poses, a perfect mirror of the society of the time, constantly observed and criticised. And it is precisely her critique of materialism, as well as a marked feminism, the common thread of all her works.

Body as prison

Colourful, with abstract forms and predominantly pastel colours. The human bodies within Maria Lassnig’s paintings have an unmistakable character. Because, in fact, she is now considered to be one of the most important Austrian artists of the last century. Drawing heavily from artistic currents such as Expressionism, Viennese Actionism, Cubism and Surrealism, she has been able to create something totally personal and unique, inspiring, in turn, numerous other artists and also making a significant contribution to the film world.

Born in Kappel am Krappfeld, Carinthia, on September 8, 1919, Maria Lassnig was born out of wedlock and only a few years later her mother married a man much older than her, with whom she always had a rather troubled relationship. For this reason, young Maria grew up mainly with her grandmother, with whom she maintained a special bond throughout her life.

Having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during World War II, Maria immediately became part of the art movement known as the Hundsgruppe, which was inspired by Actionism and Expressionism and included artists such as Arnulf Rainer, Ernst Fuchs, Anton Lehmden, Wolfgang Hollegha and Arik Brauer. Yet, it was mainly abroad that she found the most important cues that would contribute to making her art the one we all know today.

Having moved, temporarily, first to Paris – where she also had the opportunity to meet with personalities such as André Breton, Benjamin Péret and Paul Celan – Maria was already beginning to move away from the predominantly abstract painting she had tried her hand at at the beginning of her career: now her paintings were beginning to take on more and more ‘familiar’ forms. Now, at last, the human body, which was to become a true pillar of her entire oeuvre, was beginning to reveal itself in all its mutant and colourful forms.

It was Maria Lassnig herself, in fact, who pioneered the theory of ‘body awareness’. In her paintings, the human figures depicted – often even self-portraits – frequently look incomplete, sometimes in unnatural poses, a perfect mirror of the society of the time, constantly observed and criticised by Lassnig herself. And it is precisely her critique of materialism, as well as a marked feminism, the common thread in all her works. As she explained several times, when she was working on a painting, what was depicted were the parts of the body that she felt most alive and pulsating at that precise moment: no wonder, then, that the bodies depicted are often without arms or legs, or even only just sketched. Similarly, the predominantly soft colours, almost pastel tones, often quite different from the typical colours of a human body, provide the right counterpoint to a constant sense of death and claustrophobia that pervades all the Carinthian painter’s works. The body and its constant evolution, her own figure and inner pains and the difficulty of finding one’s place within a cynical, chauvinist and consumerist society will also be constants in Maria Lassnig’s films, mainly experimental short films, often made using basic stop-motion animations of her own paintings.

Having arrived in New York in 1968 – where she would remain until 1980 – Maria Lassnig first approached the film world by studying animation film from 1970 to 1972 at the School of Visual Arts. The short film Baroque Statues, made in live action but perfectly in line with her paintings, dates from 1970. And if this directorial approach was maintained the following year with Iris, it was in the same year that with Selfportrait Lassnig began to concentrate almost exclusively on stop-motion animation films. From then on, numerous other short films would be made – parallel to her career as a painter – until, in 1992, she made The Ballad of Maria Lassnig (Maria Lassnig Kantate), probably her best known and most personal film.

Hers was a career that spanned many, many years, which witnessed the realisation of numerous exhibitions around the world and which culminated in Vienna, where Maria became a professor at the University of Applied Arts in 1980, holding the chair until 1997, the year in which she also published her first book of drawings, entitled Die Feder ist die Schwester des Pinsels (The Pen is the Sister of the Brush).

Many, then, noticed and acknowledged her talent. And throughout her life, Lassnig also won many important awards, including the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis for visual arts in 1988 and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2013 – one year before her death – at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Nowadays, several exhibitions dedicated to her paintings are still being organised. And, in particular, the Albertina Museum in Vienna currently owns a substantial number of her works. Her constantly mutating bodies – also observed as a kind of prison – and the deep self-awareness that radiates from her works have, then, made the painter rightfully immortal. And even today, when we happen to visit an exhibition of some contemporary Austrian (and other) painter, we often find some typical features of Maria Lassnig’s own work. Her artistic contribution, her feminist struggle and her constant research into human bodies and their place within society are a necessary component within the extensive artistic production of the last century.

Info: the page of Maria Lassnig on iMDb