Author: Antje Mayer
Published: Kunstzeitung Nr. 11/2004

Maria Lassnig (Art Cyclopedia)
Maria Lassnig (Wikipedia)

“I feel, therefore I am”

An interview with Maria Lassnig, the Grande Dame of Austrian Painting

At the age of 85 you recently moved into a new studio. Your inexhaustible energy has become legendary; do you never run out of it?
Now I’m growing notably less energetic. I am approaching the grave. I myself am always impressed by my own number of years. All my life that has been – typically Austrian – rubbed under my nose. Unnecessarily. This ritual doesn’t exist in America. For half a year now I have not had an opportunity to do any painting. In summer 2004 alone I had three exhibitions to cope with, including one in London. Terribly tiring. Painting is very hard work, but I’m not a factory girl, I need peace and time to reflect.

You’re being coquettish; after all you’re world famous...
Really? Is that so? I never notice any of that. What does it mean to be number one? That everyone always wants my pictures, which I don’t want to let go of. I find it very hard to separate myself from the paintings, and I find it sad that people don’t always tell me who has bought my works of art and where they are hanging.

Your breakthrough came late, with your participation in the 1980 Biennale in Venice together with the twenty years younger Valie Export. You are seen as a “late discovery”; weren’t you rather a pioneer in painting?
With hindsight, it was a mistake to agree to join with Valie Export. At the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where I was a student in the forties, in the middle of the war, they taught us a kind of academic Impressionism. I didn’t learn about Expressionism until the fifties when I was living in Paris. After that, I went to the roots of all styles of modern art by myself. One after another! I’m not a pluralist. If you are a pioneer, in other words too early, you are often seen later as too late, an imitator of your own imitators. That is really tragic for me. I’ve often had suicidal thoughts because of it. In New York, where I lived for a while from the end of the sixties, people first even found my pictures too depressive, “weird and strange”. Imagine! What is produced these days can never be weird and strange enough!

How do you feel about contemporary art?
I am in despair about today’s art. One can’t seriously talk about the “rebirth of painting”. It‘s so dependent on photography these days. That isn’t painting. That is no anti-technique art like mine, art that relies only on the human. My motto is not technique, nor even “cogito ergo sum”, but “I feel, therefore I am”. Perhaps painting will die with me (laughs). Recently I was categorised in the media as one of the “angry women of Austria”. Again and again I am associated with feminist art.

Do you think that’s right?
My art is not gender-specific. I can’t do a thing with the idea of “female art”. In my films I have gone on a feminist rampage, but never in my painting. Valie Export is an angry woman. She’s a politician. I’m not, not least because I’ve often noticed that great feminists make big profits from men. Certainly, I was not untouched by the women’s movement. I went on the marches in New York. When Kate Millet addressed us as “sisters” from the podium at the front, I was very moved by that.

Back then, you wrote your own scripts for your films.
The titles of your pictures have always been an important part of your art. Hans Ulrich Obrist, with whom you published excerpts from your diaries in 2000, even attested that your texts have a high literary quality.
Well, the book was called “The Pen is the Sister of the Brush” (Diaries 1947–1997, Dumont, 2000). Writing is a blood relative of painting. A German art critic once wrote that she would like to write a catalogue entirely about my picture titles. Perhaps I should do readings one day. After all, I’ve been writing ever since I was a small child, though mostly when I was feeling unhappy.

And did you paint from childhood on?
When I was six I had a sniff at it. A girlfriend took me in Carinthia to visit an aristocratic maiden, who – as was customary at the time – also did some painting. She made me copy Rembrandt. Afterwards she painted over my primitive efforts. A soothsayer once prophesied to my mother: “I see a child who has a high artistic talent.” Unfortunately, my mother soon forgot about it and was more concerned that I learned how to cook and get a husband. When I had finished school I was supposed to become a primary school teacher, but the school inspector, Graber was his name, my discoverer so to speak, saw “a little light” and sent me to the Academy in Vienna. For this “good deed” he was transferred as a punishment.

And why did it then take forty years before you came out in a big way?
Because I’m too shy, because I stayed too long in Austria, because I had a contract with a false gallery dealer and because my art is better understood if one takes one’s time.