Obrist first met Lassnig when he was a teenager, but it was after her 2008 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London that the two discussed this interest, and the artist mentioned the many watercolors she’d produced in Greece beginning in the early 1980s.
“There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of these watercolors, and they’d never before been shown,” said Obrist, describing some of his last conversations with the artist, whose wish was to show them in the country in which she produced them. “She visits antiquity not nostalgically, but in an almost futuristic way,” he said.
Not all of the works on paper see Lassnig feminizing Greek myths. She also depicts herself in more conventional scenarios, highlighting the dissonance between Greece’s classicism and its current tourism-driven economy.
Yet even these images play with perception and proportion. In Ear of Santorini (1996), you see Lassnig’s wildly oversized head tipped into the sea, as if listening for aquatic secrets, while in The Prophetess (1983), we see a nude female figure, rendered in dark colors, sitting before the ruined columns of a temple on Rhodos.
Anchoring the exhibition is the large-scale painting Woman Laocoon (1976), one of her earlier references to Greece and, one can surmise, a point of departure into her mythological explorations.
The subject of the painting, Laocoon, was Apollo’s seer who warned the Trojans against accepting the giant horse left by the Greeks. His warnings went unheeded. Here, Lassnig’s female Laocoon fends off one sea serpent (not two), which attempts to crush her. Lassnig’s figure, which is a version of herself, appears on a sea-green background with a look that could express horror or ecstasy.
Lassnig’s work became increasingly abstract into the late ’80s and ’90s, and a number of other paintings from this period see her transplanting Hellenic myths into Austrian landscapes.
“She would carry the Greek imaginary and transpose it onto the lake near where she painted in the summers,” says Obrist.