Magazine article The Spectator

Curiosity Unsatisfied

Magazine article The Spectator

Curiosity Unsatisfied

Article excerpt

Marai Lassnig

Serpentine Gallery, until 8 June

Alison Watt: Phantom

National Gallery, until 29 June

When I first saw the card for Maria Lassnig's show I thought it was just another young or middle-aged artist trying it on. Then I discovered that Lassnig was born in 1919, and I wanted to know more.

Had she always painted with this level of crude energy? Was her naive expressionist brushwork developed and refined over a lifetime? Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell from her current solo show (the first of her work in Britain). Far from being anything like a retrospective survey -- or indeed an introduction to an unknown artist -- the work has been restricted to paintings produced in the past eight or nine years.

The exception is in the selection of short animated films running on a screen in the foyer which mostly date from the 1970s.

These, from the sampling I gave them, seem quite witty and inventive. Is it then legitimate to assume that Lassnig's best earlier work is in the medium of film, and her best recent work in paint? Perhaps.

The catalogue does not illustrate any comparative material from earlier years, similarly restricting itself to recent paintings and beguiling film stills. So it is impossible to make an assessment of Lassnig's new work in the context of her career, and my curiosity remains unsatisfied. Never mind, what I saw at the Serpentine does not make me want to rush out and circle the globe in pursuit of her earlier work. The first painting you see is a nude self-portrait holding one gun to her head and pointing another at you. In these days of ignorance and ineptitude, Lassnig's vigorous alla prima daubings look quite passable. But there is no passion here -- at least no passion that communicated itself to me. I found the whole experience of seeing this show oddly perplexing. The speedy caricatural drawing, the bright acidic colours, the awkwardness -- these might be paintings by an art student who has yet to experience life, not by a mature artist now in her 90th year. They are not life-enhancing nor do they express any joy in paint; but neither are they powerful enough to be life-denying. They're just rather flat and grotesque. The show simply doesn't explain this Viennese artist's high standing in Europe and America.

At the National Gallery is something very different. The use of drapery as a means of expression in art has been common since the advent of Greek sculpture. Then, as portrait painting became popular, there were more and more acres of drapery to paint.

For some it became a specialism, like carpentry or needlework. Fashionable portraitists in the 18th century, such as the great Allan Ramsay, employed a drapery painter to fill in the less important areas of clothing.

Traditionally, drapery painting was something of a lowly calling, specialised but subsidiary. In the more puritan modern period, drapery became an accepted site for ornament and pattern, where the artist could be frankly decorative without encountering too much criticism. In recent years, one or two artists have specialised in painting fabric (think of the richly worked stuffs of Thérèse Oulton), but few have attempted drapery as such. I remember visiting Euan Uglow in his studio just after he'd finished a modern drapery painting, 'Dehydrated Pear with Drapery' (1992-3), in which the lower portion of the canvas laid on panel was peppered with the punctures from dividers as Uglow strove to depict the different planes of the cloth. …

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