“Selbstporträt mit Stab” (Self-Portrait with Stick), 1971, Maria Lassnig.
“Selbstporträt mit Stab” (Self-Portrait with Stick), 1971, Maria Lassnig. Oil, charcoal on canvas, 193 × 129 cm. Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation. Right: Detail of Zwei Arten zu sein.

Austrian artist Maria Lassnig spent her life evoking both the subtlety and raw power of the body, and she is finally becoming recognized for the major contributions she made to painting in the 20th century.

The Early Life of Maria Lassnig

Maria Lassnig (1919–2014) was born outside of marriage, making her family life tumultuous in the still highly traditional country of Austria. Her grandmother ended up doing most of the raising until Lassnig left for arts school during the Second World War.

“You paint the way you are.”
—Maria Lassnig

Early on in her career, she experimented extensively with loose forms of depiction, allowing the feeling of lines to determine their shape. As the 1940s turned to the 50s, more and more abstract expressionism in the US and elsewhere came to inform the way she worked. This reached its height in the early 60s, with works like “Fat Green” (1961).

On top of her non-representative pieces, Lassnig endlessly returned to the self-portrait as a means to ground her oeuvre. This obsession with returning to her own physical form is the impetus behind her idea of Körpergefühlmalerei, or “body consciousness painting.”

Body consciousness focused her painting on the parts of her body that her mind could actively inhabit at the moment, often producing deformed self-portraits. She also used color and shape to further express the way these body parts felt.

The more these ideas developed, the more her paintings of human bodies became the focus of her work, and the abstract pieces fell away, though their lessons remain intact in her output.

“Dicke Grüne,” (Fat Green), 1961, Maria Lassnig
“Dicke Grüne,” (Fat Green), 1961, Maria Lassnig. Oil on canvas, 194.1 × 129.1 cm. Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation. Right: Detail.
“Untitled (Screaming Woman),“ 1981, Maria Lassnig
“Untitled (Screaming Woman),“ 1981, Maria Lassnig. Pencil, watercolor on paper, 62.7 × 43.8 cm. Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation. Right: Detail.

An Undaunted Artist

In the late 60s, Lassnig moved to New York City. It is here that she exhibited widely and learned animated film, which she pursued through the 70s and then again in 1992 with “Kantate.”

She left the US in 1980 to teach painting at the Vienna University of Applied Arts. There, she was the first female in a German-speaking country to become a professor of painting.

It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that she garnered the critical attention she’d long lacked. It was also during this period that her work reached its most moving heights. The pieces were stripped down to its bare essentials, delivering with lacerating severity—as in her 1981 drawing “Untitled (Screaming Woman).”

She continued to emphasize this pared down style, which amplified her innovations as a painter. And she tirelessly pursued these ideas as long as she could. Consider her “Two Ways of Being (Double Self-Portrait)” completed when the artist was 81 years old.

Zwei Arten zu sein (Doppelselbstporträt), 2000, Maria Lassnig
Zwei Arten zu sein (Doppelselbstporträt)—Two Ways of Being (Double Self-Portrait), 2000, Maria Lassnig. Oil on canvas, 100 × 125 cm. Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation.

Maria Lassnig’s Legacy

“You paint the way you are.”
—Maria Lassnig

Few artists are bold enough to dedicate themselves to their own style of painting, but Lassnig remained committed. Even through decades of relative obscurity, she continued to blaze her own trail.

Though she died in 2014, her profile continues to rise. After many years, she is being recognized for the master that she was. But one imagines that for Lassnig it was never about accolades. It was about her lifelong pursuit of expressing these strange bodies we inhabit.