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Ernst Fuchs
1930 – 2015

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I have been saying for years, asked & without being asked, that the greatest living artist is Ernst Fuchs (maybe only Zao Wou-ki — whose works i have only seen in reproduction — comes close), & I stand by that statement. Why has nobody i have ever said that to, even heard of him?

I only found out about Ernst Fuchs by accident, when i was ransacking the art books at UT Arlington in the late 70s; they had a copy of the (no English) book Die Wiener Schule with its rather small pictures but enough for me to tell that a new & powerful current of Surrealism was afoot in my own time, out there in Cold–War-gray-&-not-yet-touristy Mitteleuropa. As it happened, i even stumbled into a group show of theirs while en flâneur auf Vienna in '77 — & learned that the oil-on-tempera Mischtechnik of the Old Masters, too, had survived, or been revived rather (thanks to Fuchs!): which immediately became my consuming ambition for the next 10 years or so. During this period, however, i felt more influenced by Francis Bacon, whom i could dare hope to emulate, than Fuchs, whom i could not possibly.

Strangely enough i never heard any more about Fuchs from that time (unless you count Omni magazine), although i later was to acquire a shabby copy of the 1979 coffee table book about him that is now very pricey indeed. It seemed the art world had meanwhile been hijacked wholesale by another trend (Neo-Expressionism), & then (if anything) the seething froth of PoMo & Retroish-gimcrackery which persists to this today. Nothing could have been more out of fashion, i realize, than Fuchs with his High Baroque style & sesqui-findesecular taste — not
to mention the Bible subjectmatter thing. He wasn't even playing the same game as them — how could he be a Master?

Fuchs, however, can actually be grokked in an entirely different context: Acid Rock. If Fuchs wasn't the only artist with Blakean visionary pretensions to emerge from the Psychedelic Era, he is arguably the most profound. Looking back now, none of the rest amounted to more than album cover decorators— even if they did create some damn good covers. (So why was Hundertwasser the one in their group to hit the big time??) — Fuchs himself was only interested in decorating cathedrals (& opera sets…). But he made a place for himself, somehow, on the Outside: & in 1988 opened his own museum (fittingly, in Otto "Secession" Wagner's old crib). And there he proceeded to follow his bliss. A singularly stringent & fuliginous bliss, for sure.

Interactive, Full Panoramic Image

There he painted, sculpted, cast bronzes, made mosaics & cycles of prints, composed, sang, wrote poems, books for children (he had 16 with 7 wives) & a novel, produced records & CDs, & designed everything from buildings to jewelry & tableware. His last great project was to completely cover the inside of the Chapel of St Egid in Klagenfurt, Austria with apocalyptic paintings, which are presently viewable in panorama on the internet.

Although Fuchs himself made no bones about his artistic ancestors, from Bosch, Dürer & Grünewald to Klimd, Schiele, & de Chirico, his chief source was ever the waking trances which he could apparently enter at will. This gives his work a tense vitalism setting it apart from most other surrealist works born out of a cultivated imagination& will. "Afterwards, everything I did in this time seems to me, as someone else would have done it" (from his official website). Picasso, Ernst, Gorky, Miro: to some degree they followed a similar formula, but how different the results… With impeccable depiction & a keen eye for color, his every least image seems access into another world, solider & more fantastic, timeless, at the end of everything.

After you recover from the astonishment of his inventiveness, what hits you next is the irreconcilable contradiction of his emotion. I cannot think of another mystical artist (except perhaps Bosch—set side by side in his triptychs) who allows fear & despair into the heart of his otherworldly ecstasy. There is never less than a sinister, foreboding & terrible edge to his figures, who melt into dreamy-nightmarish backdrops like giallo characters bent on horrible, mysterious errands no doubt involving both sacrilege & desperate quest. I can see why one church had its members protest to the point of removing his specially commissioned Three Mysteries of the Sacred Rosary entirely. It creeped people out. (A point at which Fuchs's work approaches that of H. R. Giger.) Or as Rilke (whom he also has much in common with) said, "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror/ which we are barely able to endure…"

Another striking aspect, never entirely absent, & eventually all-pervasive (some said: to the detriment) is his intense eroticism. All along there had been a sort of subliminal lasciviousness to his cast of Judeo-Christian saints, angels, & kabbalistic cherubs; by the time he was creating his hypercallipygian "Sphinx" series, however, the feeling had changed to full-blown Paganism. I think it is fairly obvious from a consideration of his entire output that, as tempting as it was to pigeonhole Fuchs as a "religious artist" (which made his oddities more comprehensible), this was never an adequate description of his methods or aims. Rather, he was a Romantic artist who, in Jungian terms, cast his archetypal material (intensely charged, inexhaustibly mysterious) into the nearest available form: in most cases, conventional religious symbols. Once he hit upon the Madonna, then, he discovered a whole complex of meanings he was increasingly drawn into, from The Wedding of the Unicorn through Eva Cristina to the female angels' faces at St Egid. Nowhere is he closer to Leonardo than in the enigmatic gaze of his goddesses.

It is really hard to pick favorites from so vast an oeuvre, but i would be remiss not to mention Psalm 69, Moses and the Burning Bush, Brown Cherub Against a Blue-Green Sky & the incomparable

 

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More stories by Micheal Helsem are linked on Reviews by Michael Helsem.

See also: J R's 2013 story about Art @ Midtown (in Valley View Mall).

 

 

FOOTNOTES

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others that come to mind (from the same period): Ivan Albright, Dr Seuss, Mad magazine's Basil Wolverton, (& later) Joe Coleman
As documented in The Journey of the Highwaymen by Catherine Enns (2009) — another group not considered "art" at the time

 

 

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