Ask Morgana 113: Paul Gustav Fischer

I would like to compare modern realism – of which I have given several examples in this series – with the ‘naturalism’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Naturalism and realism are spoken of in the same breath, and usually accounted interchangeable as terms to describe the artistic movement that rejected romanticism, and emphasised the need for an artist to paint, unaffectedly, what he or she actually saw. This did not necessarily result in a photographic effect; I would in any case argue that it was a movement of intention, not of effect. The effect in the seaside paintings of Paul Gustave Fischer (1860-1934) is almost impressionistic, conveying the play of light on things. Fischer doesn’t always convince me. He had comparatively little formal training, and although formal training is not necessarily the be-all and end all of whether a painter is good, I still feel that with a little more he could have developed more technical power.

Still, from around 1890 to 1910 Fischer painted scenes of young women relaxing, sunbathing, getting ready to swim, towelling, on beaches in Denmark. Again not deliberately erotic, but in one or two of them something delightful is hinted at. What I love about the four paintings below, beyond that hint I mentioned, is the quality of daylight. In each we have a slightly different time of day, or dimming due to cloud. Painting (1) below is in broad sunlight; I must say that I adore the attention paid to the subject’s nipples! In (2) the sky is so blue that there is a purplish tinge to it; typically one of the subjects is lying back, eyes shut, maybe asleep, while her comrade gazes… well… either over the dunes or at her. This painting brings with it a little sense of seclusion, the slight muting of the sound of the waves on the shore. In (3) cloud is building up, but it is still sunny. Again there is the motif of one young woman asleep, but the focus is now upon the conversation between the other two; and again not overtly erotic, though I do love the behind of the woman on the left. (4) is perhaps my favourite. It comes up in Google searches for ‘lesbian art’, though again I doubt if that has anything to do with what Fischer intended. I think it’s due to the faces not being seen, and to the possibility that the standing woman is looking down at her companion, that gives it a sense of intimacy.

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