Safety Curtain 2005/2006

Breakfast with Ear

The dialogue with Maria Lassnig, from which the Safety Curtain for the Vienna State Opera's 2005/2006 season evolved, began twelve years ago during preparations for the exhibition "Der zerbrochene Spiegel" (The Broken Mirror) for the 1993 Vienna Festival (co-curated by Kasper König and myself). The exhibition, with works by 43 painters from three generations, posed the question of the function and autonomy of painting at a time of its frequently forecast end. Between the works of the younger generation Maria Lassnig's paintings appeared remarkably fresh, present and vibrant. Rarely before had it been possible to notice the effect of her influence so precisely. In recent years Maria Lassnig's painting, drawing and film work has moved ever closer to the centre of attention and her significance as an avant-garde pioneer with a feminist viewpoint can now most readily be compared to the American sculptress Louise Bourgeois.

The starting point for Maria Lassnig's Safety Curtain is her picture "Frühstück mit Ohr" (Breakfast with Ear) from 1967. The picture as produced while Lassnig was still in Paris, just before she moved to New York. What is this scene all about? A new paraphrase of Manet's "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" with an ear as a dynamising "punctum", according to Roland Barthes, the coincidental detail that "pricks" the observer but "also wounds him"?

For Maria Lassnig transcendence begins with the body. It is found in the relationship of body and picture and is transformed by her so-called "body feeling" or later "body perception" pictures, where there is continual resistance against the repetitive and static. A musical parallel also reveals itself here. The American composer Eliott Carter rejects the repetitive just as much because, "it was too mechanical, it lost touch with the human quality that I think good music must have". In Carter's words "Frühstück mit Ohr" is "thin and thick texture as a juxtaposition of cluster and constellation. What makes a piece interesting is the sense that the composer has written using his imagination and what Pierre Boulez calls regular and irregular pulsation, if it is Mozart or Stravinski." Both Carter and Boulez describe this "pulsation" as a human quality of art. This quality also distinguishes Maria Lassnig's work.

Maria Lassnig's painting and drawing is rooted in the Informalism of the fifties. As the artist recently told me in an interview, at the start she "simply flung on paint, then always thinner and finally I was only taking one colour – a minimal art of colour so to speak and they are pure body awareness pictures." As with the seated figures in Frühstück mit Ohr "where you only actually feel the back and the thigh where they sit, it's a really very reduced picture. And the ear is because of the noise that has always made me suffer."

Today the artist gets away from the noise of the city in her studio in the country where she mainly works in summer. In the Vienna State Opera House "Frühstück mit Ohr", presented almost as a visual "feast for the ear", takes on a new and ambivalent level of meaning, not lacking a certain irony.