Whilst Florentine Renaissance artist Plautilla Nelli “follows in the footsteps of Savonarola” in her first solo show at the Uffizi, the work of contemporary Austrian painter Maria Lassnig (1914–2014) has been installed at Palazzo Pitti and her exhibition “Woman Power” is well underway. These simultaneous exhibitions will continue until June and are part of Uffizi Galleries director Eike Schmidt’s commendable program to give greater attention to women artists from all eras.
Although Nelli has always been my “main muse”, during my work to research and restore art by women in Florence I am surprised to find that I am not always thinking about the nun-artist, as I contemplate Lassnig’s 70-year career, whose second half is represented in the 25-piece Pitti show. To my astonishment, I am thinking about Medici men instead, particularly Cosimo I and the Cardinal Pietro Leopoldo. Why?
Because in Florence portraiture and self-portraits are most often considered “Medici prerogatives”, for it was these two men who pushed said genres up from the lowest rung on the totem pole and triggered their acceptance as truly respectable artistic expression.
Marketing master Cosimo I achieved this feat largely thanks to the portraiture of his court artist Bronzino, who helped establish the first Grand Duke’s reputation as a powerful leader among Europe’s leading families, though he had not a drop of noble blood in his veins. Some 200 years later, Pietro Leopoldo would greatly increase the value of self-portraiture the world over by starting his prestigious collection at the Uffizi that he opened to the public in 1769. (Even today it has more women painters represented than any other historic venue.)
Lassnig’s 1981 oil-on-cardboard Self-Portrait is at home in what I still think of as “Pietro Leopoldo’s collection”, and I’d call that painting one of the more classic pieces in her formidable oeuvre, which is comprised mostly of self-portraits. The artist achieved her first real taste of recognition in her late Seventies—she died at 92, two years before her 2016 retrospective show at the Tate in London—and crafted hundreds of colorful self-inspired images. In fact, many art historians, who have found it difficult to put their finger on the pulse of Lassing’s art, consider this genre to be the only unifying element of her painterly style, which embraced and then abandoned numerous movements from the Abstract to the Surreal.
Finally, Lassnig coined the theory “body awareness” and refused to represent any part of the body she couldn’t “feel” while painting. “The truth,” she insisted, “resides in the emotions produced within the physical shell.” From this starting point, Lassnig authored a slew of often amputated or headless figures that have been described with such contradictory words as “ruthless” and “humorous”. But what I find most interesting is her constant struggle to commit self-image to canvas in a way that appears more concerned with self-perception than how one is perceived by the viewer. In this sense, Lassing is the polar opposite of Bronzino. Unlike Lassnig, he sought intricate detail and achieved a startling brand of realism. His courtly portraits had almost everything to do with tuning into how each immortalized sitter wanted to be seen and remembered.
New York-based writer and artist Carrie Moyer describes her work: “Lassnig’s willingness to appear both vulnerable and foolish is alternately exhilarating and frightening; wide ranges of emotion are effectively conveyed by her fast, direct paint application as well as a brutally descriptive manner of drawing.”
The Pitti exhibition is a crowning achievement for Lassnig, and it comes three years after her first MoMa exhibition and four years after her “Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award” at Venice’s Biennale. Today, the artist, who was also a daring film-maker, is now celebrated alongside sculptural master Louise Bourgeois and abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell as a champion of twentieth-century art.