Roland Fischer or the Demands of Form


Catherine Francblin



From the outset, the portrait raises the question of the subject. And we are confronted with considering the double-meaning of the word ‘sujet’ in French. The sujet is initially the “subject matter about which one writes or speaks or creatively molds”. Therefore, we are concerned here with the subject of photogra- phy. But it is also a philosophical term, with a sense going back to ideas of ‘being’ or ‘individual’, defined as: “free consciousness, giver of purpose, functioning as the explicatory principle of every human fact”. The literature devoted to portraiture often seems to prefer this second meaning: it is the enigma of the ‘subject’ in its heart of hearts which the painter is supposed to plumb, and, if he has any talent, to bring to light and reveal. Do we detect a similar approach, a similar quest for the innermost being, when the artist depicts a collection of ‘subjects’, as in a group portrait, for example? Evidently we do not. It seems that only the individual portrait is concerned with a ‘subject’ in this sense, focusing as it does entirely on its ‘principal object of observation’, the point where all the efforts of the painter converge, and upon which one’s gaze is fixed.

“What is the subject (‘sujet’) of the portrait? Nothing other than the subject himself, in an absolute sense. From where does the subject himself derive his truth and his effectiveness? From nowhere, except from the portrait”, writes the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, playing on the double meaning of the word ‘sujet’ in French, in a book,1 which, we should note, is solely interested in the art of the painter and posits a kind of equivalence between the ultimate finalities of painting and those of the portrait. For what is it, in these conditions, about the photographic portrait which its print-like property shelters from the painter’s entirely proper concern to ‘create a likeness’? What is it about the portrait, when, losing its central position in a picture, it takes its place at the heart of an ensemble of semclones, arranged side by side as if on an immense sheet of postage stamps, after the fashion of Roland Fischer’s ‘Chinesische Kollektivporträts (Chinese Collective Portraits’?

It is with this recent photographic series that I shall approach the work of Roland Fischer, without ignor- ing the fact that it would probably be more opportune to begin with the photographs of ‘Nonnen und Mönche (Nuns and Monks)’, which are more ‘classi- cal’ from the point of view of what is meant by the portrait genre, apart from being better known. But the way in which the Chinese portraits raise the question of the ‘sujet’ in its philosophical meaning should allow us to return with more clarity to the series of ‘Nonnen und Mönche’, which has already received a great deal of comment, albeit apparently not in the light of these later works where similar themes have been developed further. I should say in passing that I like these threads which an artist unpicks, apparently in every direction, and which emerge one day as the bridges which link the works together according to a geography which could not be foreseen. Such is the thread of the ‘sujet’ which runs through the immense space of the Chinese portraits.

For a Westerner, humanity in China is characterized by sheer numbers. The metaphor of the anhill which comes to mind in this context contradicts the idea of separate existences and of autonomous indi- vidual behaviors. The political system from which China has barely emerged today supports and corroborates the sense of a society composed of people brought up in the cult of the community, a society where, according to conventional opinion, little attention is paid to the development of the individual. This simplistic vision is contradicted by Roland Fischer’s photographs, which reveal at the same time the collective and the unit of the individual within it. The artist, who has been to China several times, that the very fact of being one among a crowd stimulates in the Chinese a desire to stand out from the others, a desire even stronger than in western society. It is this imperative desire to exist as a distinct person in spite of the strong presence of the group that Roland Fischer has sought to express. At first sight, it is the group that comes across as dominant. The photographs, whose large format is shown here to be clearly justified, evoke in masterly fashion the idea of the mass, of a gigantic human community. The grid through which this multitude of men and women present themselves as a homogeneous ensemble also conjures up the feeling of being confronted by an army, a regimented crowd. But the same grid which serves to convey the dimensions of a society and of its quasi-military character also serves a cause which is, so to speak, precisely the reverse. Considered as the emblem of modernity ever since Mondrian,2 the grid relies on the infinite repetition of the same geometrical element. It per- mits the representation of the boundless without at the same time hindering the reading of each of its innumerable elements, to which it accords a place and an importance of strict equality. Undeniably, the authority of the Chinese portraits invites us to take a first global look at the image. In the first phase (which may be no longer than the blinking of an eye), the beholder receives a deluge of impacts from a block viewed full-face; he is, as it were, assailed by hundreds of faces turned towards him, bombarded, it seems, by a thousand pairs of eyes looking in his direction. In a second phase, or almost simultane- ously, the formal apparatus which assigns an indi- vidual frame to each face tends to suggest a different reading and to urge the beholder to escape from this global perception in order to develop an approach – a sort of defensive anti-group reaction which respects each member individually. Each of these multiple faces isolated and framed by the structure of the grid can then be construed as a true portrait. Each can in fact be viewed in its own right, scrutinized from close up, in detail. But the group contin- ues to exert its authority. Not only has the global point of view not been forgotten, but it persists, superimposed on the fragmented vision like a peripheral image. What Roland Fischer stages, so to speak, is this mutual interference of two seemingly contradictory points of view. In doing this, he not only reveals a form of passive co-existence between the collective and those who constitute it, but over and beyond this, he suggests a dynamic relationship binding each of these members to all of the others.

Thus he invites us to discover both the particularities and the common features of these innumerable Chinese portraits, anticipating that the particularities are all the more striking even though the photographic apparatus (framing, light, format) has brought out the common points without having revealed immediately the extent to which the sub- jects reunited in a group were, in reality, different. We now see how and why the Chinese portraits and the portraits of nuns and monks can be related. Shrouded in their black-and-white habits, the latter raise the banner of the membership of their religious order which unites them in the same way as the multitude of faces of students, workers and farmers which Roland Fischer gathers in the rigorously squared space of the Chinese portraits manifests the power of the community which they form. In the one case, the artist has chosen to photograph people whose clothing (one might almost say uniform) functions as a metonym of the Cistercian order to which they belong; in the other, having photographed the individuals one after the other, the artist puts them back in the bosom of the overpopulated collective of which they are all equally and uniformly the subjects – using the word this time in its legal or political sense.

Thus it is possible to read these images in different ways. If one is more interested in philosophy or sociology than in aesthetics, one will see in it a reflection on the virtues of order in human societies and its paradoxically liberating effects. If we attempt to understand on what principles the images which move us rest, we shall have to admit, with Roland Fischer, that the essence of the portrait only half resides in the photographed subject: fifty per cent of the visual force of the image derives from its content, i.e. what is ‘contained’, while the other fifty per cent derives from the ‘container’, i.e. the form or structure of the photograph.

Let us look at this fifty per cent which, in terms of take-up of space, is not devoted to the subject, but which ensure perception of it, and enhance its attractiveness. The form creates distance between perceiver and perceived. Does the so-called ‘mystery’ emanating from a work refer to anything other than this? Is it not this distance, this interval which the form places between the subject and the beholder, which engenders the feeling of an enigmatic, impenetrable object? Roland Fischer excels in creating this distance in his photographs. Not only because the necessary distance from the beholder increases with the format of the work, and the dimensions of his works are always imposing; nor yet because the quality of the prints and the perfection of their presentation gives the surfaces a certain cool touch. The effect of aloofness, of alienation, of surprise, created by these works has in essence an internal cause: it results from their constructed character, which confronts the beholder with a distinct order of reality, an order which forbids any reduction of the photograph to merely what it depicts.

The series of the ‘Fassaden (Façades)’ bears witness to the capacity of the photographic medium to go beyond its strict function of representing reality by demonstrating its ability to range itself right along- side painting and sculpture as part of an artistic practice capable of perpetuating the values of the modern age. As their titles indicate (‘La Défense, Paris’; ‘Cicil Street, Singapore’, etc.), these photographs demonstrate that Roland Fischer has in each case seized on a fragment of that visible and tangible world which each of us apprehends when crossing any modern metropolis nowadays. In this sense, these works are certainly photographs, in other words images of reality, and, furthermore, images of a familiar and perfectly recognizable reality. Unlike other artists of the same generation and the same school of thought, who have moved from an ‘objective’ photograph towards a totally abstract image (Thomas Ruff, for example), Fischer retains a strong link with reality. His series of façades, however, would not be out of place in an exhibition of abstract pictures beside works by artists representing the ‘Neo Geo’ trend or others whose painting renews the motifs of modern art by being based on the observation of an increasingly austere geometricization of the urban environment. Using a cropping technique which neutralizes the surrounding reality and destroys any impression of depth, this series in fact approaches the aesthetics of the Op Art and Kinetic Art of Bridget Riley or that of her compatriot Sarah Morris. Like the grid, the flattening of the dimensions of reality on to a two-dimensional surface is an essential characteristic of the modern pictorial regime. In the Chinese portraits, we have seen how the flat structure of the grid contributes to the creation of a distance which allows the beholder to extract himself from the violence of a nonetheless inevitable confrontation with a particularly numerous social group. The flatness reminds us of the autonomy of art, affirming the necessity of form. But in the photographs of Roland Fischer, this flattening does not stand in the way of the obstinate presence or self-exposure of a subject that plumbs the roots of a concrete reality which is itself not without depth. This combination of a two-dimensional frontal point of view with a mode of expression in the service of reality is the characteristic marque of Roland Fischer’s work. We find it notably in the series of the ‘Los Angeles Portraits’, in which the real and the unreal, the material and the immaterial, are fascinatingly mingled in a single image of extreme musicality.

If all the photographs by Roland Fischer manifest the existence of a verifiable though distant exterior, this applies a fortiori to the portraits, which presuppose the presence of a flesh-and-blood individual in front of the camera. For in the portraits, photography is the particular guarantor of reality, since the object of which it is the witness is a body – a human body, moreover – with which the other human – the beholder – is immediately going to try to establish a relation of proximity by attributing to the image which he is confronted with, all kinds of qualities inspired by his own life. Now what is the artist to do with this particular object, which is by nature ‘sym- pathetic’3 in the etymological sense of the word, in the ‘Los Angeles Portraits’? He half submerges it, withdraws it from the view of the beholder with the sole end of celebrating, with all the more éclat, that which constitutes the extremity of the body, its focus, its privileged part, the primary bearer of the spiritu- al qualities assigned to the being in question – namely the face. The major aid to recognition and identification, in Judeo-Christian culture the face enjoys a reputation (unlike that of sex) of sanctity. The face is the “epiphany of the person”, remarked the theologian Olivier Clément in an article devoted to the portraits of ‘Nonnen und Mönche’, while the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas sees in every face “an appeal addressed to me”, “the commandment to help other people, not to leave them to their own devices”. To encounter a face, he says, “is first of all to receive a request and an order”.4

It is in fact this dimension of the individual which the ‘Los Angeles Portraits’ permits us to access, or more accurately to glimpse at a distance, as if through a very thin pane of glass. Just as the nuns and monks offer the photographer a face which is all the more insistent in that they conceal their own bodies in a habit which reveals their membership of a larger body, namely the Cistercian order, so the models for the ‘Los Angeles Portraits’ direct a silent appeal at the beholder, an appeal which is all the more intense in that only their face emerges and opens itself up to him, the rest of the person being confined to the shadow, buried beneath the smooth, uniform surface of the picture. The tension between this colored mass in which the identity of the photographed subject is lost, and the well-defined face which appears to extract itself therefrom, gives these works an exceptional majesty. One might say that what is hap- pening here is the re-birth of the face. We might also speak of its coronation, on the one hand because the face is as it were framed in its setting like a precious stone, and on the other because the formal treatment imposed by the artist adds a notable solemnity to its expression.

These faces, whose features provide us with frag- ments of a story which is in every case unique, give us no information whatever about California or Californians. The photographs of Roland Fischer are emphatically not anecdotal. Thus it is absolutely not out of any sociological interest, but rather for technical reasons, that he chose to go to Los Angeles. In fact, having conceived the project of photographing, in natural light, faces emerging from the water of a swimming pool, he had no choice but to work in a region where the sky is cloudless and the light levels are constant. Or to put it another way, the form permanently imposes its demands on the subject to be photographed. The form, in other words the concept which presides, so to speak, over the work, constantly dictates its conditions. Why would Roland Fischer have created his first group portraits in China if he had not sought to photograph faces whose apparent sameness in the eyes of us Westerners allowed him to provide in a single image both the portrait of a broad community, immediately identifiable as such, and that of the distinct individuals which compose it?

Thus the work of Roland Fischer might be said to betray a certain formalism in the sense that it appears as the product of a rigorously programmed formalization of the visual. For all that, it is clear that the artist never loses sight of the subject, which in his photographs is never a matter of indifference. If, as has been said, encountering a face is to have access to the person, then to photograph a face is to open up a royal road toward the subject. To put it another way, to choose the face as one’s photo- graphic subject is to choose as one’s photographic material the subject itself, the ‘sujet’ in the sense of the human being in his heart of hearts, in his intimacy conceived “as a field, a well of disquiet, of conflict, of symptoms.”5

Levinas adds: “The face, behind the expressions which it shows to the world, is like the exposure of a being to its death, the defenselessness, the nakedness, the misery of others.” If it addresses itself to others, if it appeals to their responsibility, their mercy, if it beseeches, if it commands, it is because it is the part of an individual which is most exposed to death. The face combines the strength of the being and the ubiquity of death which holds up his weak- ness to his eyes. The photographs in the series ‘Nonnen und Mönche’, like those of the ‘L.A. Portraits’, form an admirably supple and yet solid summary of the two entities which constitute the notion of ‘sujet’: strength and fragility. Language forces us to categorize, to differentiate. We say ‘being’, we say ‘death’, ‘content’, ‘form’. In photography, by contrast, the motifs interpenetrate to the point where they are mutually subsumed (and where language no longer has a solution). The image is neither collage nor assemblage. It is a space for relationships between materials which are different by nature, a place of exchange, a place of circulation in which the elements cause each other to vibrate. However, in order to understand the manner in which this circulation becomes visible, we should perhaps not become fixated on faces. Like the hundreds of faces with which the Chinese portraits confront us, the portraits of the ‘Nonnen und Mönche’, and those of the ‘L.A. Portraits’, exert such an authority that they tend to push the beholder into a hole, obliging him to be evasive, to suspend judgement on the picture as a whole and to proceed by small steps, by fragments. The habit which surrounds the faces of the members of the religious order, and the water over which the ‘L.A. Portraits’ are hovering, lend themselves more readily to such fragmentation. The habit, because it is supple, molding itself both to the body of the priest and to the disciplined body of the religious community; the liquid element because it is amorphous, but is also defined by its volume, its weight, its density and its color – and both because they are at the same time content and container: hardness and softness – perfectly illustrate the idea of elasticity appropriate to spaces exposed by Roland Fischer’s photographs. Nothing is added in order to introduce a particular sense. Chasubles, faces, visages, the centering of the bodies, the surface of the photographs and the water of the swimming pool: all this contributes equally to the sense, and all this is, in a way, at the same time the ‘sujet’ of the photograph and the presence of the ‘sujet’ as being (and non-being), as individual (and as member of a community), as awakened consciousness (and total closure).

With their broad grid dividing the space into squares, the Chinese portraits correspond to this same need to construct a work whose photographic subject on the one hand coincides with the ‘sujet’ in the philosophical sense, and whose manifestation, on the other hand, evinces identical properties of duplicity and plasticity, so that what appears to be ‘content’ and what appears to be ‘form’ can no longer be dis- tinguished from one another. An interest in structures which are at the same time open and closed (like the grid) has been evident in Roland Fischer’s works from the outset. It is a theme which he takes up with his portraits of Cistercian monks subject to enclosure. But it is the series ‘Kathedralen (Cathedrals)’ in which the theme is developed to the full. Here, Roland Fischer superimposes interior and exterior views of European cathedrals. With the help of digital technology, he combines thus a perspective view of the interior with a frontal view of the façade. “Drawn by the perspective, the eye buries itself in the depth of the nave to return once more to the exterior aspect of the church, or, conversely, from the façade to the choir in one movement of perpetual to-and-fro”, observed Anne Wauters.6 Depth and flatness: the association of these motifs, which we have already encountered in the preceding series of photographs, here engenders a space which is totally artificial, in a sense monstrous, but whose flatness accentuates the majesty, as if it were seeking to open out upwards, in order to experience an increase in spirituality to compensate for the loss of depth and naturalness.

We see how much, from one series to the next, Roland Fischer takes up the same questions and the same contrasts. Even though each of his series unveils a specific subject, they all work in the same way as a portrait seeks to plumb the ‘enigma of the subject’. Neither the cathedrals nor the façades are any exception to this rule. Both series, from which the human form is absent, constitute a pole far removed from the ensemble formed by the various series of portraits. But in the work of Roland Fischer, as we know, it is precisely the most diver- gent elements which generate the most balanced compositions, namely those where the fifty per cent of the space devoted to the content and the fifty per cent devoted to the form are no longer antagonistic, but rather are exchangeable in respect of place and function. To this extent, we should be able to describe the nuns and monks in these photographs as we describe the cathedrals. The Chinese portraits could be envisaged as examples of contemporary architecture, and the faces, at the same time open and closed, of the Los Angeles Portraits as façades. Suggested by the hieratic aura of the figures and the geometrical composition to which they give rise, the continual interchangibility in Fischer’s work reproduces, after all, the impulse which all his images seek to convey.


Cathrine Francblin is a french art critic and curator based in Paris



1 Le regard du portrait, Paris 2000.

2 Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avantgarde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge 1985.

3 “Sympathy”, from the Greek “sympatheia”: “syn”, with, and “pathein”, to feel.

4 In: François Poirié, Emmanuel Levinas. Qui êtes-vous?, Paris 1987.

5 Georges Didi-Huberman, in the exhibition catalogue “A visage découvert”, Fondation Cartier, Paris 1992.

6 Exhibition catalogue “Roland Fischer”, Overbeck-Gesellschaft, Lübeck 1997.