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: www.serpentinegallery.org