Written by Art and Mind, Blogging Fellows, First Person, Visual Art

The Monster Within

Psychiatrist and art critic Deborah Kostianovsky explains why she can’t turn away from a portrait that terrifies her.

As a psychiatrist, I am trained to perform detailed assessments of suicidal and homicidal thinking. My initiation-by-fire was as a psychiatric resident in the early 1990s when I was on call for the infamous Room 10 of the George Washington University Hospital ER. 

Room 10 looked inconspicuous enough. Yet it was the only ER room with padded walls, a “no sharps” policy, and a slit-like shuttered window. It was also the only room that could be locked from the outside. Any person who was deemed potentially dangerous, or who was agitated, was ushered into that room and I was paged. As the psychiatrist on call, I was privy to unfathomable amounts of human suffering and torment in the form of depression, psychosis, acute manic behavior, addiction, and even a few verbal threats to then President George Bush, for which the ER was obligated to call the Secret Service. 

Though I have probably seen thousands of patients since then, the desperation that defined Room 10 still haunts me. It was as if that experience vaccinated me against being shocked by human behavior. So I find myself surprised by my reaction to You or Me by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014). I was shocked. I couldn’t look away. 

You or Me, a self-portrait completed when the artist was 85, portrays Lassnig pointing one gun at her head and another directly at the viewer. No doubt, it’s a disturbing painting, overflowing with psychological tension, dread, anxiety, and seething anger. She is naked, revealing her sagging breasts and emaciated figure. She has a wild-eyed expression of fear, desperation, anger, and even surprise, as if the viewer has unexpectedly walked in on her. 

The uncannily beautiful mix of pastels–greens, aqua, and beige–starkly contrasts with the terrifying content. The neon-green halo around the figure adds a sickening layer to an already alarming image, as if highlighting disorder and distress. Portions of her head and ears seem mysteriously lopped off. She is sitting awkwardly on the floor, yet there are no clues about the context, as she stares out against a pure white background.

Lassnig, an Austrian painter whose work consisted almost exclusively of self-portraiture, had a long career that spanned 70 years. She received early recognition in Europe, but did not achieve international acclaim until later in her life. At the age of 92, she was awarded the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale. She dubbed her post-1948 work “body awareness paintings.” In these portraits, she illustrated sensations experienced internally by her body while painting. If a particular body part felt numb or was devoid of feeling, she left it out.

By focusing solely on the feelings of her body from within, Lassnig was able to boldly express her private inner sensations rather than merely her outer appearance. Looking inward not only makes her work more genuine but also gives it universal appeal; her oeuvre captures what it feels like to be human. In Tate (2019), Gilda Williams perceptively states: “[Lassnig’s] paintings, drawings, and film reveal an artist who was relentlessly devoted to examining the very human sentiments of being exposed and feeling vulnerable. ‘I want to paint things that are uncomfortable,’ said Lassnig.” Since she only depicted body parts she could actually feel while working, the result was paintings that were sometimes abstract, with grotesquely contorted and warped bodily forms. The colors, further defined by Williams as “indefinable in color as a bruise” reflect harsh, perhaps painful emotional content. While painting, she would often lie on the floor and close her eyes to allow the sensations she felt to inform her work. As noted by Carrie Moyer in Art in America (2013): “[She] freely hybridizes figuration with abstraction as a means toward full sensory and psychological expression, and has engendered some of the most darkly perceptive imagery of the last twentieth century.” 

Her work is deeply personal, yet there is a kernel of universal truth in its torrent of emotions. Her bodily form, with its decrepitude and partially missing facial features, reflects the artist’s staunch feminist ideas. In that unflinching stare, she powerfully subverts the male gaze, a ubiquitous trope in the history of art. This nude, unlike the shapely beauties in 19th-century art, has an emotionally distorted face and an aging body. With guns pointed toward the viewer and herself, it’s as if she’s daring the viewer to look, to examine her nakedness, but at the same time saying “If you look at me, I’ll shoot!” And it’s unclear whether she will shoot herself or the viewer, adding even more tension to an already explosive scenario. 

Du oder Ich (You or Me). Maria Lassnig. 2005. Oil on canvas 203 × 155 cm / 79 15/16 × 61 in.
© Maria Lassnig Foundation / © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / Bildrecht, Vienna
Private collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Collection Services
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

By explicitly portraying her aging nudity, she makes it clear that she is not merely a sexual object to be gazed at by male viewers. She rips away that male agency in a manner similar to Manet’s Olympia (1865), a portrait of a nude prostitute who defiantly stares at the viewer rather than demurely looking away. Lassnig takes Olympia’s boldness further by brandishing a gun at the viewer, essentially annihilating any inklings of female passivity. And yet, there is insecurity in her twisted face, as if she craves control but also fears it.

Despite the arresting visuals, this work isn’t just a commentary about the visible body, but more about that unseen part in each of us. The painting seems to peel away layers of lies and half-truths we propagate about ourselves, revealing a raw, scandalous mixture of suffering, insecurities, and trauma. It’s like revisiting Room 10. It’s also like glimpsing a veiled part of ourselves. 

Though most of us are not as disturbed as either Lassnig’s portrayal or the visitors to Room 10, there is a twisted, dark underside in all of us, perhaps something embarrassing or shameful that we don’t want to expose to others. As noted by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian (2016): “Again and again [Lassnig’s] paintings return us to the acute tension between how we feel ourselves to be–messy, inarticulate, barely there–and how we are increasingly obliged to present ourselves to the world…In acknowledging the gap between the two and dramatizing it in such a luscious way, Lassnig doesn’t merely provide a feast for the senses but also a balm for the fretful soul.” 

There is something validating about the stark honesty of this artist’s emotional work, as if Lassnig is giving us license to be fallible. Maybe the work is not just about revealing human flaws, but about acknowledging that monster within. In a nod to Surrealism, this image seems to make visible that scared, angry, violent part of each of us that lies deep in our unconscious, prehistoric brains. It’s like a portrait of Thanatos, or the death instinct in psychoanalytic parlance, a basic destructive human drive that could be directed toward others or turned onto oneself. Those angry, aggressive impulses, symbolized here by guns, are usually channeled into socially acceptable actions. But those negative emotions are real. They’re the monsters that lurk in everyone’s unconscious and nightmares. 

In that silent, unflinching stare inhabiting Lassnig’s painting, I can see fragments of my own fear, anxiety, and seething anger as if I were looking in the mirror. There are no guns in my hands, but there is similar intensity. I know that at this historic moment I’m not alone in these emotions. They’re about the trauma and uncertainty all around us. And they’re about the myriad of conflicting emotions that makes us human. Maybe glimpsing our reflection within this shocking work will force us to acknowledge that vulnerable, insecure human within all of us, regardless of our age, and to take better care of ourselves and those around us. We’re living in unprecedented times. For us, as in Lassnig’s portrait of an old lady wielding guns, there is no dispute that the stakes are high and the questions are urgent. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t look away.

Cover image: Portsmouth Naval Hospital corridor, Portsmouth, Virginia. Source: public domain

Art and Mind is a series of essays about the intersection of art and psychiatry.

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