Better late than never

The art world has suddenly "discovered" Maria Lassnig at the venerable age of almost 90

Surviving into old age is a good career move for a creative woman. Even if she has been ignored during her middle years, she might be "discovered" if she hangs on in there. Never mind that she has been there all along just getting on with it. Suddenly the world will be amazed that she is not only not dribbling in a corner, but actually making new and challenging work. Think of Louise Bourgeois or the novelist Mary Wesley, both of whom entered the public consciousness well into pensionable age. Now the Serpentine has put on the first solo UK show for the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, who is in her 90th year.

As you enter the gallery, you meet her naked self-portrait. Her green eyes pierce like bullets and her ageing body displays a bald, childlike pudendum. With one hand she holds a gun to her own head, while aiming another point-blank at us, the viewers. It is quite a greeting, as if she is saying we must accept these paintings on her terms or one of us will cop it.

Arriving to meet her, I get a feisty message that she is in the middle of something and that I will have to wait. I hang around, keeping an eye out for a little old lady, and fail to identify her in her polo shirt and trainers. She looks a good 20 years younger than she is. It is hard to believe she was born in Carinthia, Austria, in 1919 and has been producing these edgy, confrontational paintings - bleak, full of cruelty and implicit self-loathing - for 60 years. She appears in them over and over again. There are stumpy women without arms, like the torsos of thalidomide victims, as well as strangely morphed bodies with snub noses and piglike tails set against an acid yellow ground.

The figures are reminiscent of Paula Rego's early paintings of angry cabbages and murderous monkeys. In one self-portrait from 1995, Lassnig appears, Bacon-like, with open mouth and crooked teeth, blinded by a cooking pot that she wears on her head like a soldier's tin helmet, as if implying that she has seen more than her fair share of psychological battles. There is so much pain here that, if it were not for their flashes of humour and tenderness, these paintings would seem pathological.

Lassnig has coined the phrase "body-awareness paintings" to describe her visual language, which illustrates the sensations experienced from within; though it is hard to discern where physical sensation and psychological effect begin and end. "There are too few words," she has said, "and that is why I draw." When I ask if she ever suffered from an eating disorder - there is a large painting entitled Madonna of the Pastries (2002) in which the subject sits, a saggy nude, in front of an array of creamy gateaux - she dismisses the question. Yet these uncomfortable images seem to embody the raw anxiety and trauma that so many women project on to their bodies.

Lassnig has had an interesting life. Trained in Vienna, she went on a scholarship in 1951 to Paris, where she met Paul Celan and André Breton, which brought her into contact with surrealism. Between 1968 and 1980 she lived in New York, where she made inventive, wacky animations on the complexities of relationships and her experience of being a female artist, a number of which are on display in the current show. On her return to Austria in 1980 she became the first female professor of painting in a German-speaking country.

I saw the exhibition just after hearing of the disturbing case of Josef Fritzl, which made the painting of a fat man crouched naked over a prostrate rag doll of a child take on a particularly disturbing resonance. The Illegitimate Bride (2007), with her blank, backlit face and pendulous breasts, half hidden beneath a veil of stiff plastic, also suggests something potentially awful. Spell and The Power of Fate (both 2006), for which Lassnig painted models messing around in the cellar of her house wrapping themselves in clear plastic, imply something tainted and subterranean. Stark and often set in the middle of an empty canvas, her figures seem to float in their own space without reference to any wider world. "Background," she has said, "creates mood and atmosphere, and I don't need that."

Her models are from rural Carinthia. Adam and Eve in Underwear (2004) - in which the couple might be embracing or about to strangle each other - are her local priest and his girlfriend. Often, when painting herself, she lies on the floor beside the canvas as if looking into a mirror. Brides are a constant theme; most look sad, veiled and cut off from the world, separated from the connection sought in the act of marriage.

In many ways, Lassnig's paintings are totally idiosyncratic: a personal mix of dark humour and vulnerability. There are, however, links to the work of the German painter Wols, with their childlike influences and curious metamorphoses, as well as to the transmutations of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Alice Neel's expressionist palette and Marlene Dumas's vulnerable exhibitionism also come to mind. With consummate skill, Lassnig - expressive, raw and crude - uses bravura colour to construct her virtuoso figures.

Like Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo, and like the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Lassnig has mined the depths of her vulnerability to make art. There is nothing false, nothing done here for mere effect. Her paintings are raw and real. You can almost hear them scream.

"Maria Lassnig" is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 8 June. For more details visit:

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.