Eric Fischl

Galleria Mario Diacono

Eric Fischl’s first exhibition in Rome was a one-painting show, but what a painting. This was a large oil-on-canvas work entitled Birthday Boy, 1983. The scene is a bedroom, slightly distorted in perspective; on the unmade bed lie an adult woman and an adolescent boy, who presumably is celebrating his birthday. Both are nude. Is the woman his birthday present? She opens her legs without reticence, seemingly offering transition from childhood to puberty. Almost distractedly, the boy touches the woman’s leg, his glance toward her unwillingly oblique. He doesn’t seem at all grateful for the gift being offered, nor is he embarrassed at the mystery revealed. The woman looks outside the picture, indifferent to the implications of her pose, as if this were a normal situation. Is this mother/creator literally the mother, giving birth to semiadulthood in her son without worrying about incest taboos? Perhaps. Perhaps the rite of sexual initiation has already taken place, and both are closed off in their own thoughts, incapable of escaping what has happened. No sense of drama hangs in the air.

In the right foreground the corner of a table bears a red tray holding a newspaper, a glass pitcher, a glass with a long metal spoon, and a glass lamp with a pink shade. The objects’ connotations are not overt, but they include the idea of containment, of the possibility of being filled—the glass with water, the lamp with light, the page with the word. All allude to symbolic generative substitutes and metaphors for action.

In the background a long window looks out on an urban night, almost like a cinematic backdrop. The darkness is negated by the rosy light of the room’s interior, with its singular, secret intimacy, its silence and privacy. The light resembles blood; red and pink details in the room—bed cover, tray, lamp shade, skin—are like accents in a symphony of tones suggesting a diffused sensuality.

Compositionally, the painting’s intersecting geometries create two spatial structures, one within the painting, the other related to exit from it. The work’s focus is the boy, who lies in the center of the visual field, the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines of the surrounding space all converging on him. But other lines tend toward eluding the space of the canvas—ceiling, bed, and table project toward the spectator, as does the woman’s glance. And so the intimate scene is opened to the outer world and becomes theater. Yet the work is not pornographic; the viewer functions not as a voyeur (the role Duchamp imposes in his Etant donnés . . . , 1946–66) but as a knowledgeable observer of a psychologically disturbing action. The transformation of the space from private to public, its theatricalization, makes the event seem acceptable, “normal.” The viewer doesn’t feel like a witness to a social transgression.

Fischl’s work is Brechtian in that it robs events of their emphatic connotations by treating them as theater. Like Brecht, he shows the event, doesn’t identify himself with it, and avoids emotional involvement with the subject. Thus the painting’s loaded contents are shorn of tension. Through the detachment of Fischl’s narrative, the situation described, with its suggestion of the ancestral incest taboo, loses its potential to disturb. The artist has broadened the boundaries of narrative painting and descriptive naturalism.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.