Maria Lassnig - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I searched for a reality that was more fully in my possession than the exterior world, and I found it waiting for me in the body house in which I dwell, the realest and clearest reality.” 
    —Maria Lassnig

    With her characteristic strong, supple sense of line and expressive, vividly realised colour, Competition III is a particularly energetic illustration of Austrian artist Maria Lassnig’s abiding interest in the body and its sensations, and her pioneering employment of it as an instrument of self-realisation. Now internationally acclaimed as one of the leading artists of the of the 20th and 21st centuries, Lassnig did not paint her body as she saw it, but rather as she felt it – or felt through it, recording the physiological and psychological sensations registered within her body as a means of both mediating and defining her relationship to the world outside of herself. In posing herself the question of how best to represent the feeling body, in 1949 Lassnig created her first Köperbilder, or ‘body awareness’ paintings, a practice and unique mode of working that she would continue to refine throughout her career.


    Body Work


    Truly radical in their execution and unique in their appearance, Lassnig’s Köperbilder paintings are not conventional self-portraits in the sense that they do not depict the body from outside of itself as a fully comprehended whole, working instead from the inside out and focusing only on the parts of herself that she can feel while working. Figuration, for Lassnig then, ‘comes about almost automatically, because in my art I start first and foremost with myself. I do not aim for the “big emotions” while I’m working, but concentrate on small feelings: sensations in the skin or nerves, all of which one feels.’i In a radical reframing of the artist’s relationship to the canvas, she would often execute these paintings laying on the ground to order to provoke physical sensations, recording her body’s response to these poses in vibrant, expressive colour. Such intimate body consciousness destabilises centuries of pictorial tradition, aligned more closely to the key concerns and pioneering practices of 1970s feminist performance art than to any straightforward painterly tradition.

    “I draw or paint a picture in a particular position: for example, sitting, leaning on one arm, you feel your shoulder blade; but, of the arm itself, only its upper portion, the palm of the hand, like the handle of a cane.”
    —Maria Lassnig


    Left: Detail of the present work
    Right: Egon Schiele, Männlicher Akt mit erhobenem Arm, 1910, The Museum of Modern Art, New York


    Fellow Austrian Egon Schiele’s sinuous, intensely wrought bodies are an often-cited exception to this, although Lassnig had little exposure to this avant-garde lineage; coming of age under Nazi rule, Lassnig’s early artistic training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was rigidly traditional, in line with prevailing ideologies around ‘Degenerate Art’. Towards the close of 1960 she relocated to Paris, re-establishing links with Surrealists André Breton, Benjamin Peret, and Paul Celan, and crystalising her pictorial language and her growing interest in the infinite, internal world of the self. After eight, productive years in Paris, Lassnig followed Nancy Spero’s suggestion to move to New York, establishing herself within the vibrant East Village scene where she discovered feminist politics, co-founding the Women/Artist/Filmakers, Inc. collective alongside the likes of Carolee Schneemann and Olga Spiegel.


    Within this collaborative and supportive community, Lassnig continued to pursue questions related to the feeling, ever-changing body, expanding her practice to include film and animation projects. Like Lassnig, Schneemann understood that painting and artmaking were fundamentally dynamic, embodied acts, both artists querying what it might mean to be both image and image-maker simultaneously. Painting directly onto her body and realising herself as both an instrument and element of the work as early as 1962, the intense corporeality of Schneemaan’s visceral performances are echoed in Yves Klein’s Anthropométries, where he painted directly onto the model’s naked body, using her as a living brush, dragging and pressing her body into the surface of the paper. Importantly though, while Klein remained a step removed in the execution of these works, Schnnemann and Lassnig reclaimed the female body as a site of radical experimentation and instrument of self-realisation.


    Yves Klein's Performance 'Anthropometrie der blauen Epoche', 1960. Image: Photo Scala, Florence/bpk, Bildagentur fuer Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin

    Painted in 2000, when Lassnig was over 80 years old, Competition III defies prevailing notions of the ageing body as frail and failing, using instead the male-dominated language of sport and athleticism to express its vitality and verve. Exhibited with Petzel Gallery in 2002, Competition III belongs to Lassnig’s series of late, great Fußballbilder, exceeding representation, functioning instead as a ‘short-cut of the body […] to activate and reactivate forces, to display what a body can do or where it can go, as well as its alienation, its obstacles.’ii


    A supreme example of her mature work, and of the key themes that grounded her 70 year practice, the artist is present here in the three, leaping forms, their physical expressiveness emphasised by Lassnig’s characteristic use of fluid lines in bold shocks of pink, zinging neons, and vibrant turquoise set against empty space. Dispensing with the distractions of mood and atmosphere, the stark contras of the vividly realised forms against the monochromatic ground offsets the lively vitality of the figures, the throbbing areas of bold colour flexing against each other like the muscles on our own bodies. 


    As with so many 20th century women artists – especially those working with the body in such radical ways – critical recognition came late for Lassnig, and yet her influence on a vast range of contemporary artists from Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Dana Schutz, and Christina Quarles is immediately apparent. Placing her body and its sensations at the centre of her practice, Lassnig – along with Schneemann, Louise Bourgeois, and Alinz Szapocznikow – created a language for describing the experience of embodiment, reclaiming the specifically female body as a site of radical experiment.


    Maria Lassnig: Portrait of the Artist, Hauser & Wirth, 2019


    Collector’s Digest

    • Despite widespread recognition in her home country, being the first woman to be appointed as a professor of painting in a German speaking country, and the first to be awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988, Lassnig would not have a major international institutional show until the 1990s, the first major survey of her work in the UK coming remarkably late in 2008.

    • Since her first major shows in Switzerland and Holland in the 1990s, she has gone on to be the subject of solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1 in New York, Tate Liverpool, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and The Serpentine Gallery on London. She is currently the focus of a major solo show at UCCA, Beijing, the first major presentation of her work in China.

    • Lassnig’s unique approach to self-portraiture, and her pioneering concept of ‘body awareness’ has gone on to influence a diverse range of contemporary artists working across a wode range of mediums.



    i Maria Lassnig, ‘1000 Words: Maria Lassnig talks about her exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London’, in Artforum, Summer, 2008, online.  

    ii Élisabeth Lebovici, ‘This Is Not My Body’, in Éric Alliez and Peter Osborne, eds., Spheres of Action: Art and Politics, Cambridge, 2013, n.p.

    • Provenance

      Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2002)
      Phillips, New York, 13 November 2019, lot 396
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, Maria Lassnig, October 24 - November 30, 2002

Property of an Important American Collection


Competition III

signed and dated ‘M. Lassnig 2000’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
207 x 153 cm (81 1/2 x 60 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2000.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡♠

Sold for £482,600

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023