Saturday, 17 January 2009

Eric Fischl
Not Seen (The Hirschhorn, Washington DC)
12 January 2009

The Funeral, A Band of Men (Two Women): Abandonment! 1980
Oil on Canvas 140 x 262 cm

This is perhaps an unusual painting to choose as it is one of his works that I haven’t seen in a gallery (acquired by The Hirschhorn in Washington DC and not currently on view). Although most of his best work has a fin de siècle melancholy, I chose this one primarily because of the clear relationship with the funeral procession paintings of Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet.

Painted in 1980 and originally titled “A Funeral”, it is a scene pieced together from snapshots taken at his own mother’s funeral, who had died after a car accident in 1970. As the painting was completed ten years after the event, Fischl was not setting out to paint an impartial representation of a real event but one from his memory that will have been mediated through time and photography. In other words it is a painting about the recollection of a feeling at the funeral rather than the funeral itself.

In this grisaille, the family is gathered in mourning, all focused on the open grave with the exception of an adolescent boy staring out towards the viewer. He is in the foreground of the painting and looks very self conscious, embarrassed about being caught showing his feelings, a tear runs down his cheek.

The use of collaged photographs as source material is evident in the painting. The characters do look cut-out, yet the overall image works. I can believe the situation even though I know the painter was not at the funeral with oil, brushes and canvas. It is because the situation is one I can identify with – it is an observation of contemporary life that we have intruded upon as voyeurs. We are placed in the position of the original photographer, intruding in what should be a private moment. By collaging the ubiquitous snapshots taken to preserve the memory of the occasion, they have been manipulated by Fischl to comment upon the damage the camera can do to reality.

“I tried to make the painting take place at the moment the viewer comes upon a situation. You witness the awkwardness of that moment through the boy who’s looking out. He is caught between his awareness of you watching and whatever the emotions are that he is going through. That’s what it is all about – all of a sudden being more self-conscious, about being watched than about being able to express grief and bury the dead.” [1]

The expression of the boy is real, the camera caught it, but would he have had that expression if the camera had not been there and he had been allowed to grieve in private. Therefore, the reality in the painting is much more complex than that depicted by the 19thC realists. This is a reality where people behave according to examples set by the media, particularly by film and television, giving the painting the air of a split second taken from a movie, rather than a meticulous observation of a real event. The characters become actors rather than mourners in Fischl’s painting making it look like a painting of a film still rather than of a photograph of the funeral.

[1] Grimes, Nancy “Eric Fischl’s Naked Truths” Art News Sep1986 p76

©blackdog 2009

Blackdog Black & White Photography

1 comment:

  1. Interesting painting which reminds of some short stories of Raymond Carver, What we talk about when we talk about love- the figures feel a loos without being able to say what the loss is about- there is not any connection between the family members- unusual grave ( also no Jewish funeral the stones belong to as essentials)- the whole possible inner feeling could be expressed by the dramatic clouds in the background- an irritating but somewhat fascinating pic qwith a touch of doomsday atmosphere.