Born in Austria in 1919, Maria Lassnig was schooled in Vienna's official realism in World War II, and later took in Abstractionism, Parisian Surrealism, German Expressionism, and whatever she saw in New York in the 70s. Her work emerged with a tart, unanswerable style—biting, cynical. (So it was Expressionism that proved decisive.) In the last twenty years (she is now in her 90s), it has become more confrontational—unignorable. The English-speaking world caught up with it in 2007, after a scandalous delay, in a survey of 30 pictures that opened in London’s Serpentine Gallery, then moved to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. 

Lassnig’s paintings look at you and go ha! With the exception of the titles, the human figures in them usually lack context. (Lassnig called Francis Bacon a “good boy” for filling in background). They are nonetheless as irrevocable as punched holes. There is point to them, but what is it exactly? Anecdotal, mordant, they are drawn in a style straight from the pencil sharpener. The pictures rudely take hold of you, implicate you, and put you to the test of enduring their bitter and almost gorgeous violence. 

The brush work is dry but the colors are, well, colorful. They are unapologetically what and where they choose to be. Expressive, irrational, often flamboyant, they range from hot purples, mauves, and reds through blues and greens to dried-out lemon yellow, and may put forward like a plate of meat a hank of pink. The pinks of the unclothed figures themselves are more treacherous than sensuous: they say we're an unshelled species. Shell pink for the little girl in Bugbear (that's not a doll, Lassnig has said), who lies supine on dimensionless blackness; a livid pink for her naked Big Daddy molester (p. 90) Lassnig focuses without mercy on our vulnerability to harm. Her self-portrait with a language grid-mask (93) is enough to make anyone feel gagged by words. The head could almost be sitting on a wire torso like a dressmaker's dummy, and the face, in suffocating overlaid colors, is in Expressionist freak-out mode. The bride's mask-stiff Indian-red face in The Illegitimate Bride (92), unseeing in a tenting veil of clear plastic, together with her breasts, drooping like water balloons, forms a warning to all would-be brides. And in Spell (91), the man struggling for room inside plastic sheeting, his face obscured by too much light, as if by a senseless ontological spotlight planted inside the milky transparent sheath, should be sorry he was ever born. 88 

Existence as a spell that doesn't work, a bad spell—this is Lassnig’s theme. Though the spell is pretty much rotten by the time she sets her subjects up for life-slaps, her people seem to know the misery of not having what they once thought best and beautiful. Idealism, perfection—these are the positives of which her work is the negative. Beginning with Courbet, modern painting has thwarted art’s supposed mission to imagine the ideal. Here, the thwarting continues, with animus. With her violent (yet vivifying) color sense, Lassnig punishes humanity for falling short. In The Three Graces (96), the classic figures of the graces are reconceived as brutally muscled, quasi-machinic, Boccioni-like figures with, one soon notices, shockingly humanoid feet. These graces dance on a flailing pink big-snouted shark-like shape (Lassnig is “after Picasso” in “putting the nose out of joint”). That supine monster is Lassnig, of course, and also you, viewer: it is all those who cannot possibly rise above failure as the graces themselves rather monstrously do. (Because of its cruelty, perfection is demonized.) Lassnig's self-portrait with a cooking pan on her head says horror to kitchens; so much for domestic contentment. The blue-faced, pink-bodied female in “The Delicate Boxer” (94) is seemingly propelled forward by a biological blast blowing her backside apart. Her one boxing glove is uselessly extended. Pathetically, she is still aligned with girliness, as witness the sensitively raised fingers of the unshelled left hand. She feels the full force of the destructive nature of existence; she just hasn’t accepted it. 

What now can be hidden, what shortcoming, what shame? It will out. Lassnig will out it. The tag she supplies for her recent work is “drastic art.” In her anti-world, resources are lacking. Even sexuality, that bourgeois recourse, isn’t a help; on the contrary, it brings humiliation and desperation. Lassnig has painted many unflattering nudes, a number of them of herself—for example as a slack-bodied nominal princess holding a big frog to her vagina. Like Lucian Freud, she despoils the genre, but without his affection for flabby flesh. Our contemporary situation, she implies, is that we have lost the haven of intimacy—not least, intimate spaces: the cosy bourgeois room, the chapeled church. In Missiles (opposing page) space in its cubic, circumambient guise for once makes a strong appearance, but it is impersonal, big, undefined, invadable, unloved: Arabian sands. (Shell-less we feel we are, therefore have shells, will launch.) Lassnig’s figures are both contemporary and almost raw types of never-changing man and woman. (“Adam and Eve” is a favorite motif.) But, standing forth from blankness or meaningless brushwork as a scream stands forth from silence, they imply that the situation—human life—has lately become more acute. 

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