Maria Lassnig, Woman Laocoon (Woman Laocoön), 1976. Oil on canvas, 193 x 127 cm

While researching paintings of snakes for a recent body of work, I was reminded of Maria Lassnig’s painting entitled Woman Laocoön, 1976. For nearly seventy years, Lassnig, an Austrian painter, focused primarily on creating groundbreaking self-portraits placed within backgrounds devoid of distraction. Her larger-than-life figures often remained ungrounded, suspended within horizonless, undefined planes of pastel candy-colors made up of what could be described as seemingly arbitrary brushstrokes (although I don’t find them to be arbitrary in the least.) What I appreciate most is Lassnig’s dry sense of humor and blunt depiction of imagery. Her work often distorts the body, attempting to reconcile it within space that her form would not normally inhabit. The invented space of the picture plane allows for new opportunities in which the female figure can reside. Lassnig shifts the discourse surrounding the historical representation of the female form in painting by portraying herself in situations that reach far beyond the domestic or exotic, places to which Western depictions of women were often confined.

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his Sons, Early first century C.E., Marble, 6 ft 10 in × 5 ft 4 in × 3 ft 8 in

In Woman Laocoön an arm appears dislocated, as if to represent an error of translation or anatomical incompatibility. Lassnig’s own body is superimposed within the sculpture that is the image’s source, Laocoön and His Sons, found at the Vatican. Lassnig emphasizes these distortions through painting on a large scale with loose brushwork, giving a sense of physical presence to the figure and the world it exists within. Her calming seafoam greens and pinks are at odds with the imagery she is depicting. In the original sculpture, Laocoön and his two sons’ limbs are broken, all three missing either a right arm or hand, their anguish now not only referring to the struggle with the serpent but also with the passage of time. Meanwhile, Lassnig’s limbs are reconstructed through the action of painting, most likely through her trademark method of “body awareness painting” in which she only painted the parts of her body that she could physically feel in the moment (thus the absence of hair in this portrait). The work functions as a visceral reaction to an idea. Laocoön’s two sons are not present in Lassnig’s version; she appropriates this Greek tragedy, dating from somewhere between 29 and 19 BC, to apply to herself alone. In her rendition, the snake’s mouth is closed, posing no threat and appearing more as a prop. Another difference is that Lassnig’s face does not portray the same misery that is present in Laocoön’s, which has been described as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art (1). Rather, her face appears bordering on indifferent, a slight sign of physical exertion at most—an expression common to many of her self-portraits—suggesting that the struggles she faced as a woman in mid-twentieth century Austria were routine and unfortunately anything but a remarkable tragedy.

This painting was most recently shown as part of Lassnig’s exhibition at documenta 14 in Athens, appropriately titled The Future is Invented with Fragments from the Past. I’m interested in the way that meaning is embedded in subjects through representation, how a subject can become the site for new meaning, and how meaning shifts over time. Lassnig’s appropriation of Laocoön as herself is an excellent painting to exemplify this process.

Johanna Robinson, Data Transfer, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 48 inches

1) Spivey, Nigel.

Johanna Robinson (b. Mt. Kisco, NY) is a painter whose work explores the limits of constructed knowledge. Within her paintings, imagination is given primacy as a source for truth-seeking and world building. Robinson is a 2018 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program.