Santiago B. Olmo: Roland Fischer, Fundación Marcelino Botín

The portrait of architecture

Traditionally the genre of portrait has been associated with the
symbolic representation of power or of the beauty embodied in
particular faces, but it has also allowed art to probe the inner world
of the individual, to show first the soul, then the character and finally
the psyche, as different layers of knowledge of individual and
collective human beings, until the real symbolic being is revealed. To
sift and unveil these inner dimensions through the representation of
an individual and unrepeatable body and face, furnishes art with a
deductive aesthetic path which leads from the particular to the
general, or universal, and sets up a method of knowledge, linked to
visuality, organizing symbolic structures for seeing. The expression
„the face is the mirror of the soul“ is commonplace in vernacular
language, but possesses a programmatic validity for art, to the extent
that it posits the challenge of representation of something that is not
perceivable by the naked eye alone, that requires both subjective
intervention and critical distance.

Indeed the fortune, development, splendour, decadence and
revitalization of the portrait genre in art has been conditioned not just
by a consideration of aesthetical priorities, but also, and most
importantly, it has been determined by the value and meaning that
knowledge has about the inner psyche (and logically the
representation of its form and content) at different moments in
history. If we concentrate on painting, the decline of portrait painting
occurs progressively throughout the 19th century. In Romanticism
landscapes proved a better mirror of an observant and contemplative
soul, historical painting expressed the moral side of private and public
life, and the avant-garde generally centred on language as an
investigation of revolutionary aspects that explored methods of
aesthetic communication hinging on the social more than on the
individual. Indeed, in Surrealism dreams condense inner life and only
in Expressionism, where the inner torment of psychoanalysis is
brought to bear, does the portrait fulfil an efficient cognoscitive
function. Photography with its supposed objectivity had already
undermined the genre of portrait painting, if not its prestige then its
effectiveness, but was also responsible for its revitalisation and
reconsideration in the broadest artistic sense, throughout the 20th
century. In the 50s and 60s inner aspects are concentrated in action
as gestural painting (North American Abstract Expressionism) or as
happening (Fluxus, performance, etc.) and as thought (Conceptual).
In this scenario, photography has channelled the portrait in a variety
of ways as a reinstatement of the inner, through its depiction of body
and face, exploring a language both renewed and singly portraitistic,
whereas in painting a similar process only occurs on an individual
and residual basis practised by artists who defy classification (Bacon,
Balthus, Freud).I Photography, moreover, has established a
construction of portrait from a consideration of time much more
complex than in painting, whose development follows technical
advances in machinery, introducing numerous nuances in the
depiction of the face and its psychological implications. From the first
models which required prolonged exposure, to compact cameras and
the photo booth, the photographic portrait has evolved in a dimension
of photographic time. Moreover, it has also contemplated constructive
factors that permit speculation in photographic language on the
meaning of representation and the representable.

Throughout the 80s the work of Roland Fischer focused its attention
on the problems of portrait, particularly in two emblematic and
innovative series Nonnen und Mönche (1984-86) and Los Angeles
Portraits (1989-95). In the first series his penetration into psychology
indicated universal symbolic values (as well as moral and spiritual
ones) that transcend any concrete individual, and at the same time
he framed the faces of nuns and monks in their wimples and hoods,
in such a way that the photographic viewpoint acts upon an already
framed and cropped reality. This viewpoint which crops something
already framed is a metaphor of the nature of photographic language.
In the second series he takes this idea to the limit, dispossessing the
portraits of women covered in water to their shoulders in a swimming
pool of any expression that might denote emotion, their eyes look
inwards and they convey nothing other than a deep impenetrable
surface. Their faces also attain a symbolic dimension, but in the
extremely radical disrobing and in the appearance of aesthetic models
one could see a social interpretation. Framed in the water of the
swimming pool they float in an indeterminate place like a visual and
representative limbo in which individual connotations are dissolved
but universal qualities remain untouched.2

This profound use of portrait exercises in my opinion an enormous,
primary influence over the field of perception, and the ideas
concerning the possibilities of photographic representation, in two of
his latest series with an architectural theme Kathedralen
(1997-Cathedrals) and Fassaden (1998-Façades).

In both series architecture works primarily as a text to be analysed (in
the post modern sense) and secondly as a face to be treated
photographically using an approach that employs those elements that
constitute the psychological and inner acumen characteristic of the
portrait. In this manner, Roland Fischer can emphasize a critical
distance and apply an objective viewpoint, in a completely unpolished
fashion, to the architecture, whilst integrating into his approach the
interpretative insight required for making a portrait. Objectivity is not
a condition of style, neither is it an end in itselt. It constitutes, in fact,
both an aim and a tool allowing a distance to be fixed in order to
augment the depth of analysis. Similar, in part, to what could occur
on a formal level in Los Angeles Portraits, but in this case the aim is
to generate a reflection about the profound meaning of architecture.

In the series of cathedrals a specific style, the gothic, is used to
confront architecture and its most essential inner qualities are brought
into play: the geometric combination as an infinite, the crucial tensions
between transparency and volume, weight and lightness, and finally
between outer plane and interior depth. The spirituality of the gothic is
suggested by superimposing a variety of ornamental combinations and
different constructive elements. These superimposed layers also
highlight the importance of ornamentation, the objective of which is
not simply decoration, but the expression of an ecumenical and
universal idea of elevation, transparency and spirituality.

In Fassaden, however, architecture is turned into a fragment, but a
sufficiently expressive and condensed one to allow the „portrayal“ of
psychological character and meaning contained in both the façade and
the building to which this fragment belongs in the civilization of
corporations and big companies. The building is both symbol and
emblem of power and so every detail is measured and calculated to be
unrepeatable, individualized, but at the same time sufficiently
understandable within a linguistic system of purely decorative values.
They are combinable and interchangeable as a group of contrasts, that
welcomes eccentricity and peculiarity as a sign of the specific. The
façades are not displayed in their entirety, but as small fragments. The
analysis of meaningful detail is more profound than of the building as
a whole, perhaps because similarly contemporary perception and the
culture associated with it is fragmented. The façades are made of glass
and hide behind their colours, yet they allow their interiors to be
glimpsed, fleetingly, as though they were faces.

In this series, as in the cathedrals one, there is no investigation of
typologies, or contexts, the principles on which German photography
has been basically developed over the last decades. In this sense the
influence of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher on an entire
generation of artists has been decisive. Photography has eagerly
pursued an analysis of architecture and urban landscape, but
employing a procedure hinging on objectivity and an analysis of formal
specificity, from which they could develop narrative intentions. In
Roland Fischer’s work, in contrast, typology is not posed as a means
of reaching a knowledge about architecture. To achieve this he
embarks upon a profound exploration of the meaning and significance
of clearly defined styles of architecture. From this point of view, to deal
with an architectural style requires the use by photography of a
comprehensive tool which overwhelms or surpasses the documentation
that typological analysis leads to. This tool is the approach to reality
that the portrait provides and to a certain extent it has been formalized
by Roland Fischer in his own „style“, where there is room for another
kind of analysis, based on a consideration of psychological insights,
Objectivity and subjectivity are stretched in a careful balancing act, a
balancing act between interpretation and knowledge.

In the series Fassaden architecture is transformed into painting by
use of colour and by the forms that recall geometric, abstract painting
complete with artificial colours and technological elements. It is a
decorative type of painting, like architecture itself. The fact that this
series was made in the People’s Republic of China, infuses it with an
essential flavour. The absence of an architectonic tradition of
modernity has made way for an upsurge of new creative models
employing computer based technologies instead of drawings or
projects, employing improvisation, copy and craft instead of
comprehensive training. Rem Koolhaas has tackled, and not only
from a theoretical viewpoint, the town development and architectural
questions facing new emergent Asia, he has also taken part in
concrete projects such as the Pearl River Delta in 1996, especiallv
appreciating the lack of prejudice and the immediate creative
formulas, the gigantism and spectacularity of the interventions: a
town planning that „elevates mediocrity to higher level“,3 This
appropriation and mélange of styles reaches staggering heights, but at
the same time gives free reign to the development of a different
concept of architecture, one in which the fragment and its
incongruent synthesis are fundamental channels for its understanding.
Roland Fischer has captured this absence of character in most recent
architecture in its most chaotic and impersonal formulation, by means
of fragments connected more directly with a decorative notion of
painting, the badge of technological modernity, than with a notion of
functionality that conveys an idea about the future. The façades
present an unperturbed image, still and cold of an implacable and
stereotypical society, one that is conventional, but spectacular
nevertheless. Vulgarity is also the spot where an extraordinary degree
of refinement appears, mainly thanks to the fragment.

Disturbing chaos and impersonality, specificity and seriation, are
matched with the aspects most linked to the human side of his
Chinese experience. Roland Fischer revisits the portrait
simultaneously, as in the movement of a rhizome, when he confronts
serialized human faces shaped like architectonic façades using the
most revulsive features of the photo booth.

The portrait returns as a motive of reflexion and authentic
experimentation that leads to the construction of a style of its own
providing the essential key to its photographic approach to reality.

Santiago B.Olmo, 1999

1 Concerning these questions related to the portrait in general and to the
photographic portrait, see the following articles Rosa Olivares, El retrato como
medio de conocimiento, Eduardo Pérez Soler, El retrato fotográfico
contemporáneo. La reaparición del sujeto and Ramón Almela, Auge
contemporáneo del retrato, la expansión de los límites del género, in Lápiz
no. 127, Madrid 1996.
See also Juan Antonio Ramírez, Retratos, alegorías, espejos included in the
catalogue of the exhibition Los géneros de la pintura. Una visión actual,
CAAM de Las Palmas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla and MEAC in
Madrid, 1995-96. The latter edition includes an English translation of this text
in the catalogue.

2 Régis Durand has tackled these two series bv Roland Fischer on numerous
occasions with great insight and depth. Metáfora de la imagen in the
exhibition catalogue Einsamkeit, Fundación La Caixa, Madrid and Barcelona
1992 and 1993, and Retratos fotográficos: la flotación de los signos in the
exhibition catalogue To Be And Not To Be, Barcelona 1992. Both in Catalan
and English language editions. See also La part de l’ombre – Essais sur
‚experience photographique, Editions de la Difference, Paris 1990.

3 Rem Koolhaas participates in documenta X where he presents his personal
vision of architecture in the light of his experiences with Chinese urban and
architectonic development. The catalogue of documenta X sheds some light on
this argument.

Published in: Nuevas visiones / Nuevas pasiones, Fundacion Marcelino Botin 1999

Santiago B.Olmo is a spanish art critic, curator and current director of CGAC Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea in Galicia, Spain