Martha Jungwirth is an artist you feel you may have seen before. A sense of déjà vu pervades her exuberant works, slashed and smeared in paint, though in London, you’re unlikely to have come across her paintings. With all the ferocity of a Willem de Kooning and the poetic subtlety of a Joan Mitchell, Jungwirth’s paintings sit comfortably amongst her Abstract Expressionist forebears, even while they mutter disobediently. Though lesser known outside of Europe, Jungwirth is a darling of Vienna, whose reputation has lately taken on greater international clout following a triumphant show at the Albertina Museum and receipt of the Oskar Kokoschka Prize in 2018. Modern Art’s new home in affluent St James’s presents an exhibition of recent paintings by the Austrian artist that range from 1993 to 2020—surprisingly, her first gallery show in the UK.
Jungwirth was born in Vienna in 1940 and has stayed ever since. Often spoken of in the same breath as Neo-Expressionist painters like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, Jungwirth has spent her career treading the tightrope between abstraction and figuration. While her initial works depicted landscapes and everyday objects, Jungwirth later steered towards the abstract and gestural, though she has never truly tied herself to a single mode of painting.
The earliest work at Modern Art, ‘Untitled’ (1993), pictures two distinct areas of watercolour that bleed into the paper below. Surrounded by dancing strokes of paint, Jungwirth conjures the sensation of leaves whipped up by a breeze—blustery and unrestrained. Nearby, a more recent painting on paper, ‘Figure’ (2017), sees vibrant swathes of oil concentrated in the centre of the composition. Jungwirth’s palette dwells in corporeal tones of rose, crimson, and deep purple. Even without the nudge of Jungwirth’s title, ‘Figure’, it’s hard not to make the connection to the body—flesh, blood, cartilage, bruised and burnt skin. At moments, Jungwirth’s careful choice of title allows the abstract to coalesce into a recognisable form. Her recent ‘Courbet’s Pipe’ (2020) perhaps offers the most descriptive title, which leads our imagination to the smoking pipe of 19th century French master Gustave Courbet.
Several smaller paintings from 2020, each called ‘Untitled’, are more directly tied to Jungwirth’s evident love of painting and its visual pleasures. Here, Jungwirth feels her most authentic and unguarded, swept up in cyclones of sensuous mark-making and colour. Luscious daubs and stains of oil meet the touches of fingertips and undersides of shoes. Areas of untouched cardboard (and collaged paper in other works) play a crucial part in these compositions: the stages on which paint performs. The tactile surface is alive and pulsing with delicacy and robustness—a visceral record of Jungwirth’s presence. These works recall the frenzy of Cy Twombly’s ‘Ferragosto’ series (1961), painted in the sweltering heat of summer in Rome. Jungwirth is just as wild and untamed, while she retains a tender delicacy. This kind of balance is a recurrent theme—eruptions of boisterous colour and spontaneous mark-making exist in harmony with structured, deliberate composition.
The two paintings from Jungwirth’s ‘Richard Gerstl, Portrait of the Sisters Fey’ series (both 2019) pay homage to her beloved Austrian roots, and the work of the mythic painter Richard Gerstl, known for the haunting portraits he made during his brief and tragic life. Here, Jungwirth reimagines Gerstl’s portrait of the socialite sisters Paula and Karoline Fey in elegant ball gowns, using flickers of white to suggest the sisters’ petticoats, and smears of pink and red to evoke their poised bodies. Without the signpost of a title here, though, it would be easy to miss the comparison.
As Modern Art places a spotlight on Jungwirth’s beautiful and profound paintings, it’s refreshing to see the gallery address her most recent work, instead of dwelling on the past. Rather than seeking to assert her place in the canon of art history, we are invited to celebrate the octogenarian in the here and now. And Jungwirth’s dance with painting is clearly far from over.