At Tate Liverpool this late summer there was an exhibition of Maria Lassnig and her life’s work (1919-2014). Rare to find a female artist who had survived into late age and had produced art works that had early been recognised and encouraged. Frida Kahlo for example lived much of her life in the shadow of her husband’s reputation, with her own fame fully emerging later, after her young death at 47. The female poets I first learnt of as role models were women who had committed suicide, leaving a much shortened body of work behind them. Ted Hughes will always have the last word on Sylvia Plath.
So it was refreshing and exciting to experience works of art by a woman whose last pieces were literally reflections on the act of dying, including hospital beds in her works. This made me reflect again on the invisibility of older women, and how in painting herself as frail and elderly her work enters a different space to the one we are often shown. Her works were shown alongside the more well known Francis Bacon, a really interesting comparison with their widely different interpretation of the canvas. Lassnig did not believe that the camera could reveal more about a person than a painting, her dialogue was between ‘realism produced by the camera’ versus ‘self portraits based on bodily sensations and inner awareness’. In contract, Bacon believes, ‘art is not self expression, it is trying to record life. The artist attempts to find systems and construct cages in which these things can be caught’. Very different approaches to the act of self expression in painting (all quotations from gallery text).
As a feminist poet who is interested in confessionalism and how women occupy space to make a political point, her works that integrated the human body with various items such as: cheese grater, gun, chair, electronic impulses, saucepans, toaster, etc, were really intriguing. These portraits were described as ‘self portraits used as a vehicle for political protest’.
Some of my writings in response to the works:
female body – a telescope – a telephone – a chair – occupied territory – a stamp – a cheese grater – a song – a gun that bleeds into your skull – a dove that bleeds into an axe
I sit in my body the way I would a chair, I inhabit my body the way you would rest and let your muscles turn to flab in an item of furniture. The straight line of arm to elbow solidifies into a permanent fixture. I do not mutate in front of your gaze to become what you desire – I am a chair carved of skin and bone.
You painted Kitchen Bride in 1988, the year I emerged from my mother, became flesh, became hands and feet. You painted a woman emerging from a cheese grater, the metal bones holding her in place, a mouth for a handle.
1980’s Gallery: Inside and Outside the Canvas
Painting Dorain Gray as the female form wrestling with the canvas. The violent purple and reds of a fresh birth, the puce of a newborn’s face, curled into a thunderous violet shadow. Creation is a mirror, a bath, a birth.
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