Can lies be true? And are Xenia Hausner´s paintings lies? What they are most certainly is skillfully staged and composed images of a reality that we can at least imagine. A reality that for some people may be reminiscent of images they have seen in the news, or maybe things they have experienced. The Albertina Museum is currently showing a big retrospective of this important Austrian contemporary painter. (And yes, it seems strange, this plus my last two blog posts have all been from the Albertina museum. I do visit often, as I have an annual pass, and after the latest lockdown ended True Lies just happened to be one of the first exhibitions I went to see.) I loved this one so much!
Xenia Hausner has a background in scenic design, and she has integrated this skill into her art: Her paintings are based on photographs of three-dimensional sets that she sets up in her studio. She does not, however, paint directly from the photographs either, she then places models in front of her constructed scenes and paints them “live”. Her subjects thus are like actors, rather than models, and there is a cinematic quality to many of her paintings. “Contrary to their self-perception, models are not passive objects, they are protagonists who act. I take up the trail with them and pursue it further,” Xenia Hausner explains in an interview with Elsy Lahner, the exhibition´s curator1.
The apparent realities she is showing are based on indirect experiences, they are constructed. We look at a painting of a full train car that is titled “Exiles” (the image I chose for the cover of this blog post), but the people in the train look like you and me, they are not the exiles we associated with the term today. And yet, for me, this particular image seemed so real, it spoke of recent history, of people fleeing their countries, and also of a more distant past, the time of my father´s birth, where the exiles from our country really did look something like this.
What also really struck me and fascinated me about Hausner´s paintings is of course her use of colours. Vibrant, sometimes even garish, and yet somehow so harmonious and, dare I express it in such lay terms (because when it comes to art I am merely a layperson), so very pleasing to the eye. She applies paint in thick brush-strokes and blends it to yield almost plastic-looking images.
Most of Hausner´s protagonists are women. Women with intense gazes, women that stare back at you, strong women. I like that. “My cosmos is female. Women are the linchpin in my work, in the pictures they act as representatives for all gender affiliations. I work through all human issues in a female occupation,” Hausner says.
She began to make increasingly complex staged arrangements in the mid-1990s. Night of the Scorpions is one of the first staged pictures for which Xenia Hausner selected models, arranged them, photographed the posed and composed scene and finally translatesd it into painting.
This might be a scene depicting a secret meeting under the full moon, of the “Macbeth witches” as Hausner herself put it, and Hausner has placed herself among them with a brush in hand. The three models are actually astrologers who fascinated the artist with their personality and appearance and all of whom turned out to be born under the zodiac sign Scorpio – hence the title.
Xenia Hausner also often uses her travel photos as a template for her pictures. Mostly they are arranged photos in which certain details are of particular interest to the artist: in this case the cloths and carpets that hang between the two window openings. The painting´s title, Hotel Shanghai, is a reference to Vicky Baum’s novel by the same name, but the painting can stand on its own. Now, does anyone else secretly cover those flowery thermos bottles?
For a behind-the-scenes look, there is the companion book to the exhibition, which shows a glimpse into Hausner´s studio, including some of the photographs that form the basis for the paintings. It also has some really good essays.
1 Xenia Hausner. True Lies. 2021. Elsy Lahner and Klaus Albrecht Schröder, Eds., The Albertina Museum, Vienna, ISBN 978-3-7774-3627-2, p.50