Miguel Fernández-Cid 2003

The Big-Eyed Virgin
Miguel Fernandez-Cid

It is rather significant to follow the recent evolution of German pho-
tographers pertaining to Roland Fischer‘ generation, which con-
tributed so much to making room for photography in collections and
big contemporary art museums, to the extent of stealing the spotlight
of painting. After imposing an aesthetics, which is visible in the way of
positioning the camera and choosing the motifs, as well as in the prior
reflection, in the systematic working method, or in the choice of tech-
nical issues, such as the camera to be used, impression method, sup-
port or framing, the moment of release arrives, just when their attitude
has too many adepts. In this sense, Roland Fischer has managed to
distance himself thanks to his dynamism, his reflexes, his way of avoid-
ing comfortable situations.

I will try to explain what I mean. I remember the impact Fischer’s
first images produced in me: his strange manner of offering a three-
dimensional reinterpretation, from photography of what Zurbarán
achieved through painting; the mixture of severity and nude warmth of
the series Los Angeles Portraits; the continuous soft focus of those
building façades turned into an excuse to talk about textures, rhythms,
in some kind of combinatory art that took us from praise to the most
strict series, to a constructive, almost pure, geometrical order, to for-
mal solutions pertaining to op art, up to the evidence of sharing the
language of a painting based on colour. Without stridencies or rough
jumps, in a formula of easy continuity. The impression before his first
cathedral images, a surprising revision of the linear sense we have
always recognised as symbol of Gothic essentialism. Or, in the verge
of the impossible, the boldness of his collective portraits. I will confess
it from the beginning: with other photographers, I do not have prob-
lems in choosing a series, motif, epoch or even an image; what
seduces me of Roland Fischer is his way of fixing an area and all of
sudden moving to its boundaries. His way of adding new possibilities
to what seemed to be a happy but rigid working system.

Returning to the previous topic: when portraying monks we must
imagine he is aware of the link that inevitably leads us to Zurbarán’s
painting. In both cases, the artists play with three-dimensional values
from disciplines that are, in principle, two-dimensional, such as paint-
ing and photography. Zurbarán recurs to the laws of drawing and
geometry, Fischer to those of light. Nevertheless, his choice is of an
extreme cleanliness, in full compliance with his contemporary voca-
tion: the backgrounds are empty while characters are placed in an
almost defying foreground. In this strict stage, facial features intro-
duce an intriguingly human counterpoint, without falling into excess or
distortion, from nuance. In other words: the details accompanying the
portrait are used by Zurbarán as illustrating features, they are sum-
bolic, narrative elements; Fischer seeks that the surface, the skin,
offers an almost inner, spiritual image of the portrayed. His school is
post-minimal, but his way of looking at things seems mysterious. The
gesture seems cold due to its rationality, but the motif choice is of an
intriguing intensity.

Something similar occurs with Los Angeles Portraits. In principle,
the portraits have the quality of apparitions on backgrounds and pure
spaces, with frontal gazes and certain symmetry in the motif. If we
describe the general guidelines of the series, we will find the ideal sce-
nario for an ascetic proposal, but when we observe the work live, we
immediately appreciate the warm side of the composition, thanks to a
clean light, which does not only bring together the pictures of the por-
trayed, but also emphasises their differences. Fischer reduces the
working field. He synthesises the space and the portrayed; he discards
any decoration and fiddles with an extremely subtle irony: the por-
trayed are LA inhabitants, but when cutting the portrait from the shoul-
ders and surrounding with a strange purity (there are no hard shades,
but a predominance of blues, sky and water) they acquire the symbolic
conditions of angels in the Western imaginary.

This type of double values can be found in posterior series, such as
the collective portraits he starts in China when he perceives that,
despite the individual’s endeavour to be different, in the Western
world we are still seduced by the power of the collective, of the mass
as a unitary image.

However, he started the Cathedral series before from the great
European gothic temples, in which exterior and interior architectural
fidelity allows him to merge several images in one, which contains
effects we sometimes perceive as opposed. A series where there is a
predominance of linearity and could have been prolonged by Fischer
easily, given its plastic efficiency. To put it clear: when he is linked to
Bechers‘ school, it seems to be forgotten than Fischer does not pursue
any documentary endeavour, it is just a matter of curiosity – extreme
but respectful – to find out what lies behind things, behind people and
the apparent simplicity of certain architectures and of language.

In this sense, when we commissioned him to prepare a project on
his ideas about the Road to Santiago, it would have been easy for him
to portray the existent Gothic cathedrals and prolong the initial sense
of the series. The documentation we prepared for him before the trip
included visual information on temples and churches, but also on
monasteries and castles. Our intention, our wish was for him to open
up the project, but we never imagined the way in which, maybe
unknowingly, he fulfilled our hopes, since we can analyse the project
Camino (Road) not as a solution collection or count, but as the affir-
mation of a working method based on previous research and on a
reflection in the face of each situation, each motif. In fact, we are
aware of the fact that some images (Burgos, Leon) are in accordance
with those done from the great Centro European Gothic temples, while
in others (Pamplona) the pictorial effects introduced after photograph-
ing fragments of contemporary façades have an important impact, or
(in the case of San Isidoro) the treatment is related to the problems
found when photographing the Cao Dai temple in Vietnam. Observing
the pictures from Jaca or San Bartolomé, we could say that Fischer is
more focused on the Romanesque presence than on the Gothic sense
of ascension; beholding Logroño or Santo Domingo de la Calzada, one
is seduced by colour and sculpture. The Gaudí series brings about
again a nowadays scarcely visible interest for symmetry, although
accompanied by a very dense presence of colour, but there are two
pictures that clearly show how open these series are for Fischer: San-
tiago de Compostela and Lugo I. From the former he could choose the
drawing presence or its proximity to sculpture, but he preferred the
immaterial, the atmosphere. Before his work, one has the feeling of
being, not of seeing. He has not selected fragments and motifs, he has
collected a density, an idea, a thought, reproducing the emotion that
accompanies the pilgrims in their trip. In Lugo I, the seduction is dif-
ferent and has a name, The Big-eyed Virgin, an image whose extreme
beauty was undoubtedly not ignored by him. When photographing it
the way he does, Fischer is aware of the fact that he is turning around
his discourse, playing with the ambiguity of religious images from a
clearly contemporary position.

It is certainly significant that he depicts monks, angels and then
cathedrals. Images of spirituality, of individuality, as opposed to the
symbol of collectiveness and society that the façades of building frag-
ments or collective portraits could be; two rather antagonistic propos-
als, since the same photographer who knows who to extract the plas-
tic detail of a building, is able to imagine the result of the sum of one
thousand individual portraits.

It is hard for me to understand how easily certain people assumed
as natural and at first sight the multiple possibilities these façades
possess. I confess that on certain occasions, When I realised Roland
had introduced a new twist in the initial scheme, I thought that the bal-
ance of the series could suffer. There had been sufficiently wide and
different proposals to understand that the system is ready and Fischer
is very aware of the rules of the game. Anyway, I believe that the
series is best understood from the last incorporations, since their
dynamism encourages us to revise the whole series, to revisit it from
a new viewpoint.

Collective portraits are different, since they have something of
impossible as a proposal. Fischer portrays ach person individually,
using a neutral background. He takes several snapshots until taking
the portrayed to his own field. He gives practically no indications and
thus the other one apparently chooses his own position. Fischer waits
patiently, since he knows the right snapshot will surface when the per-
son photographed enters his game and finally relaxes. It is again a
very subtle system to eliminate the excessively forced expression. The
individual portraits become prior material that is arranged as if he
were carefully distributing colour. The system is just about to tense
again. It works in the Chinese collectives, so ordered for our Western
vision; it works again amongst the employees of factories and compa-
nies, but in Santiago de Compostela, he goes beyond that because he
is not portraying closed collectives with distinctive symbols (members
of the Chinese army, employees of big companies), but people whose
bond is just an idea, which is accessed in different ways. For many it
is about reaching a goal, and I guess that for Fischer the most impor-
tant thing is to refer to the road. And I believe that he is aware of the
fact that by walking the road that leads to Compostela, he has opened
up his work to new directions. That is why it is worthwhile following
him; that is why he obliges us to confide in his future.
Miguel Fernández-Cid
published in: Roland Fischer „CAMINO“, CGAC Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea 2003
Miguel Fernández-Cid is a Spanish writer, critic and curator