Eric Fischl, a great subtle painter. Or making the narrative speak

Eric Fischl, “First Days of the War in D Minor”, 2022, acrylic on linen, 78 x 104 inches 264.16 x 198.12 cm

Eric Fischl always tells a story in every painting, I suppose. Telling a story means that there is always something going on in the painting. Telling a story has always been one of the main sbuttress of painting. And what did this buttress allow? A frame. Conversely, the rise of modern art has allowed some to free themselves from this architectural element, relying, for example, on the sheer force of the arrangement of colours, tones, contrasts and/or oppositions ; or even on the one and only « power » attributed to two-colour or monochrome painting — let’s remember, for example, that the thought that led Malevich to the “Black Square” is totally mystical, and that it is from this mysticism alone of the “power” attributed, worshiped, to colour, that the painting must stand. In other words, one must know and, above all, “believe” in Malevich’s mystical theory of colour in order to understand what he paints — which is no mean feat —, otherwise one misses the point entirely, while others have continued to tell stories (and even postmodern painters). And among them we can meet Fischl. “First days of the war in D minor”, the legend tells us. Good. The image seems to correspond to what it says. However, what exactly does the statement mean? It is rather unlikely that a war would be declared and officially named “in D minor”, that is absurd. However, a woman is playing a violin, facing a dead body under a car. This is strange, to say the least. Unless it’s celebrating the death of a hated man, whom we celebrate the death? That’s still unlikely. It hardly makes sense. But, as we can see, it raises questions. And that is already a start. For there are many paintings that do not raise any questions; it is “there”, and that is all. It is then up to her to “say” in the absence of a narrative arc. It’s risky, but it can work (when we hear “it’s beautiful!”, it’s generally enough; a weak little performative miracle of indigence, or intellectual laziness, we’ll never know…). In Fischl’s case, here, we notice other things. For example: Note the sort of over-frame at the bottom of the painting and on the right-hand side.

I don’t know if the expression “over-frame” is appropriate, it would be enough to speak of “over-layering”, but the reason why the expression “over-frame” comes to me is because I see it as an incitement to push oneself away from the frame of the canvas, the natural edges where the narration ends. Thus, this over-framing has the effect of bringing the scene back into focus (i.e., orthogonal « repoussoir »), but, by the same token, injects another impression; that of a fictional montage. Is it a set, of which, in the end, only the violinist is real — in fiction? Indeed, the overframe stops just at the border of her body… Isn’t this questioning? Why doesn’t it spread beyond (and therefore to the left of) the body?

But if my hypothesis is tenable, then what I call the over-frame is ultimately the very setting of the main stage with the violinist as the first performative spectator. If this is the case, then we have a doubling of fiction within fiction (we believe that the violinist is looking at an image of which she is not a part). Note also what I would call the indistinction of “natures”, or “textures”. For this, it is enough to compare the way of depicting the car to the corpse; it is identical:

the visbile brushstrokes for both. Isn’t that amazing? What does it mean, if anything? I don’t know. Is this the lesson of Léger, for whom, object or human, everything must be treated in the same way? It should also be noted that Fischl knows his way when it comes to corpses, because the livor mortis indicates that the dead man has been lying in this position for some time (several hours) (redness on the lower part of the body, from the belly to the forearm). Well, enough of the carcass, let’s move on to another image:

Eric Fischl, “My Old Neighborhood: Red Balloon”, 2021, acrylic on linen 68 x 96 in

Fischl is a director; there is always something going on in his paintings, drawings, etc.; it is not static, contemplative, frozen. Of course, it’s always about painting too, when it’s about painting, of course. So, qué pasa ¿ Well, I often find that describing what one sees, in the literal sense — I see a little girl, I see a man, a dog, etc. —, is usually of little interest, since the reader is often equipped with a pair of eyes, which is quite convenient. But of course, this tautology does not pose a question; what poses a question is How do you see, i.e. How do you understand what you see? This is a second (not necessarily second) level of reading. Now, when we look more closely, we can distinguish several levels of reading. The first level, as I have just briefly mentioned, is tautological: I see what there is to see (houses, dog, man, girl, red balloon, etc.). The second level (but the ordering is therefore arbitrary) is What’s going on? Everyone looks upset, the man, the little girl, and of course the dog, barking angrily, hunged on the fence. This painting is less enigmatic than the first one, but is it for all that less questioning? It seems to me that this time the fictional aspect is inscribed within the scene. What does this mean? As we said, Fischl’s work is about action (something happens) and fiction. Of course, every creation is a fiction, but there are different degrees of fiction. Anyone can recognise the three living entities mentioned. But it seems to me that Fischl manages to deal with at least three fictional levels at the same time. Level 1: the scene itself, already briefly described. Level 2: the plastic treatment.

Exemple : 

It’s amazing, this way of depicting-representing, isn’t it? Well, not so much, it’s not so new. Take for example this face of the monk at prayer, painted by Édouard Manet in 1865:

Édouard Manet, “Un Moine en prière” (1864-1865), huile sur toile, 146 x 114 cm, Boston, musée des beaux-arts.

Look at those brushstrokes which only depict, not represent the face. As a reminder: A portrait painted by Ingres is more of a representation than a depiction, there are no brush strokes on his faces, nor anywhere on the skin, which leads us to what I would call “representational realism”.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Louise de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville” [Détail], 1845, huile sur toile, 131,8 × 92 cm, New York, The Frick Collection.

So now go and find here a brushstroke… No chance. This is “representational realism”. In the case of Manet’s monk, it is, I would say, a “depiction” (the touch is as important — if not more so —, than the subject). Fischl, in 2022, in his treatment of skin tone, recalls this here and there, but one could say that this is anecdotal, because it is true that there can be no question of reducing Fischl’s technique to that of Manet 1864, that would be grotesque. This would be preposterous:

Here, there is no way of establishing a parallel; this is not Manet. Note, I insist, that the legs detailed above are not Manet either, at most they can be evocative, but just as much of a Kokoschka, for example. It is not Manet in the construction of the body, in its structure, in its composition, nor, of course, in the face. The same could be said of the father’s face (let’s assume  that’s what he is for the little girl).


Fischl’s treatment of carnation would therefore constitute a fictional Level 2. But we can find another one, and for that we must forget our obsessive representational compulsion.


And then you think: What is that? The towel, which we assume is a bath towel, the two characters coming back from the beach nearby. So it’s a piece of towel. Perhaps this towel is the subject of the painting. Consider it as a whole; it is something. By that I mean that it has personality. Who would have thought that a depicted towel could have personality?

Fischl has his own way (tautology?) of staging and, above all, establishing a variation in depiction. To put it this way: several painters could have contributed to this picture, each in their own way. But this is of course not the case, it is only an example to underline the technical variation, a technical variation which is not only technical, but which also questions the real and the pictorial narrative (what would be the point otherwise?); a variation which produces a narrative richness. And it is this variation in Fischl that leads to the fictional Level 3.


It is quite admirable. Look at this detail, how much it says about the rhythm of painting, about the non-hesitant waltz choice of the imprints of the real, that is to say the way of hypostasizing it. For all this comes from reality, nothing fantastic here, nothing imaginary, a sort of totally trivial and perfectly possible scene. But what does Fischl do with it? That’s up to you. We know of those paintings that represent a kind of landscape and suddenly, here and there, or in the middle of the painting, we find unidentifiable objects, out of the blue. So much for the ‘touch of the bizarre’.. But Fischl is much more subtle. Consider the way the artist leads the wire mesh to the ground, which disappears and ends in a drip! It is quite insane (in the better sense of the word). Consider the thick vegetation, which is at the same time very present, generous, and at the same time, as if dissolved in a kind of stretched dripping (before the drip there is indeed a continuous flow, isn’t it?). Then consider the border between asphalt and garden; two planes superimposed without any logic other than a sort of disrupted, scratched flatness, asphalt also “dripping” in places. There is a small world in this detail. There is nothing extravagant about this, the philosopher Leibniz did write that in each monad one could find a landscape…!

66. Par où lon voit quil y a un monde de créatures, de vivants, danimaux, dentéléchies, dâmes dans la moindre partie de la matière.

67. Chaque portion de la matière peut être conçue, comme un jardin plein de plantes, et comme un étang plein de poissons. Mais chaque rameau de la plante, chaque membre de lanimal, chaque goutte de ses humeurs est encore un tel jardin, ou un tel étang. (Leibniz, Monadologie [extract], 1714, written in French).

We would be tempted to pursue Leibniz’s wonderful thought, but we must stay on topic (that’s for another time, vielleicht). I’ll tell you this: I think it’s fantastic that in 2021 we can still find new ways of making painting speak.

Suddenly I realise that the father has stopped; he is not walking, while the daughter is still walking. Will she stop? She seems to be protesting. Is she not happy with her pretty balloon, matching her outfit?


This is not necessarily surprising, but it should be noted that Fischl really doesn’t give a damn about the mimetic dogma: look at that balloon; never seen a balloon so heavy! Good. Now, just above it, more drips. Where do they come from? It’s quite mysterious. Well, maybe not so much, it’s all about making the painting talk, and the narrative acting. If the paint “wants” to flow here, so be it; that doesn’t call into question the narrative context. “Paint” and paint, twice the same verb for a result that can be duplicated, at least.


Léon Mychkine

writer, art critic, member of AICA (French section), Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher




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