‘I step in front of the canvas naked, as it were. I have no set purpose, plan, model or photography. I let things happen. But I do have a starting-point, which has come from my realization that the only true reality are my feelings, played out within the confines of my body’ (M. Lassnig, quoted at http://www.hauserwirth.com/ exhibitions/25/maria-lassnig/view/ [accessed 1 May 2013]).
Painted in 1986, Zwei Maler, drei Leinwände (Two Painters, Three Canvases) by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, presents an invigorating enquiry into the nature of selfportraiture. Executed with swift, fluid brushstrokes, and realised through the artist’s singular blend of expressive figuration, the artist has depicted herself absorbed in her work, fragmented across three angled planes of vibrant primary colour. To the far right, we see an abstracted female figure seated. With arm raised and head bowed, the figure concentrates on the yellow panel in front, like a painter at work on a canvas. Painted with swift, thick lines of deep warm colour, the figure is enveloped by a similar intense pink, as if immersed in an atmosphere of creation. The central panel shows a head and torso of a female, who is more clearly recognisable as the artist herself. Here, her wide eyes and strongly delineated face are the central feature, outlined in boldlines of vividly contrasting colour that convey animation and creativity. The final panel, cooler in both tone and feeling, represents the final moment of artistic creation with a simply outlined, isolated hand holding a brush. A shadow of another hand lies behind it, suggesting movement. Each section, though distinct, flows into the next, conveying an elapse of time as well as varying psychological states that might be experienced while painting. Lassnig’s work has been increasingly celebrated over the last decade, with solo museum exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London, the Neue Galerie, Graz and MoMA PS1, New York in 2014. She was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Exhibited widely in Lassnig’s native country, Zwei Maler, drei Leinwande (Two Painters, Three Canvases) is representative of the artist’s commitment to a highly personal exploration of sensation, something that has always been fundamental to her oeuvre. In Zwei Maler, drei Leinwande (Two Painters, Three Canvases), she has concentrated on her own feelings, actions and posture as she worked. Marrying historical overtones of Expressionism and Surrealism, she explores the disjunction between the way that others see a person, and the person’s own, internal, sense of their body. ‘I do remember when it occurred to me the first time, when I got the idea of painting the way I feel at a given moment’, Lassnig has said. ‘I was sitting in a chair and felt it pressing against me. I still have the drawings where I depicted the sensation of sitting. The hardest thing is to really concentrate on the feeling while drawing. Not drawing a rear end because you know what it looks like, but drawing the rear end feeling’ (M. Lassnig, quoted at http://db-artmag.com/en/53/feature/real-bodys-interview-with-maria-lassnig/ [accessed 15 September 2014]). Describing this way of working as ‘body-awareness painting’, these canvases focus on the smaller, finer, physical sensations that cannot be conveyed easily into words. Speaking about this process, Lassnig has said: ‘For me, the question of the most comfortable position was of primary importance. I stood in front of the canvas and asked myself the question: how am I standing? And then there was the hand I had to move to the canvas, with the brush. I had stretched-out feelings, or standing feelings’ (M. Lassnig, quoted at http://db-artmag.com/en/53/feature/real-bodys-interview-withmaria- lassnig/ [accessed 15 September 2014]).
Throughout her long career, Lassnig has focused – with searing honesty - on representing her internal world, with an emphasis on self-portraiture. Lassnig has always eschewed conventional figurative traditions, approaching each canvas with stoical independence, immediacy and little premeditation. The freedom and unpredictability in her approach lends palpable dynamism to her work: ‘I step in front of the canvas naked, as it were. I have no set purpose, plan, model or photography. I let things happen. But I do have a starting-point, which has come from my realization that the only true reality are my feelings, played out within the confines of my body.’ (M. Lassnig, quoted at http://www. hauserwirth.com/exhibitions/25/maria-lassnig/view/ [accessed 1 May 2013]). Lassnig navigated the predominant European art movements of the twentieth century with the same remarkable originality and determination. She was trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in post-war Vienna, before spending several years in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s, where she was exposed to Art Informel and Surrealism. Between 1969 and1980 she lived in New York, producing a series of remarkably inventive film animations, before returning to Vienna in 1980 to become Professor of Painting at the Academy for Applied Arts Vienna, a post she held for 12 years. Strongly refuting any particular artistic influence, she has said, ‘I have been working long enough to establish my own tradition, from realism through Surrealism, Art Informel, automatism, and I don’t know how many other isms’ (M. Lassnig, quoted in A. Hochdörfer, ‘1000 Words: Maria Lassnig talks about her exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London’, in Artforum, Summer 2008, p. 406).