Maria Lassnig's Der Tod und das Mädchen breathes new life, ironically, into the ancient motif of the 'Dance of Death', or Danse macabre. In this large painting, created in 1999, Lassnig has shown herself in the role of the titular maiden, frolicking with the skeletal form of Death personified. She has deliberately left the background white, a device that has featured in several of her works which she has explained allows her to avoid any distractions. Instead, the focus is entirely on its two protagonists, locked in their vigorous tango. The female nude becomes all the more charged a motif in our post-war, post-feminist world as it capers with Death, recalling an earlier canon of linked pictures by artists as varied as Hans Baldung Grien, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, James Ensor and Egon Schiele yet informing it with a new contemporary energy and validity. While gender is clearly a concern in this painting, it is a by-product: instead, it is autobiography and the artist's own thoughts, feelings and experiences that inform this expressionistic painting.
Der Tod und das Mädchen is filled with activity: both that of the dancing female figure - essentially a form of self-portrait - and that of the artist herself as demonstrated by the often raw, frenetic brushwork that Lassnig has used to render these characters. It is through this dual activity, with the subject matter echoed by the dancing movements of the artist herself, that Lassnig has managed to express the idea of 'body awareness' which has for decades been the continuous strand in her work. Her paintings are intended to translate, both through the manner of their creation and through the images themselves, a notion of the artist's experience of her body. During her career, this has resulted in a variety of both abstracted and figurative works. In Der Tod und das Mädchen, that idea of 'body awareness' is accentuated by the almost fluid forms of the limbs and the jutting angles they have taken as the woman is propelled through her paces by the dynamic form of Death, himself rendered in colours reminiscent of flesh and bruising despite being a skeleton.
That notion of the artist's experience of her own body has lain at the centre of Lassnig's work for decades. Like Picasso, she is an artist who has become freer and freer in her artistic explorations as the years have passed, her vigour undiminished or perhaps even sharpened by her age. She was born in 1919, meaning that Der Tod und das Mädchen was painted in her eightieth year, yet it dances with a vicious and engaging sense of motion. When her works were shown at the Serpentine Gallery, London two years ago, several critics pointed out that her works appeared to be a fresh new force, as her reputation in Great Britain was not as established as it was on the Continent. In fact, she has been a great influence both in her native Austria and beyond, and had indeed become the first female professor of painting in the entire German-speaking world when she was appointed to that position at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna in 1980. She had already lived in New York and Paris, and been exposed to the Abstract Expressionism in the United States, a movement which informed her visceral presentations of bodily experience, both those that appear abstract and the more figurative yet nonetheless highly energised works as Der Tod und das Mädchen. It comes as no coincidence, then, that many of her works are in public collections both in the Belvedere in Vienna and in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.