Josef Fischnaller | Prächtig
May 3, 2019 2:16 pm
Irony and Presumption
by Manfred Klimek
The photographer Josef Fischnaller is an Austrian. Do we have to mention that? Yes, because it is the Austrian mentality which lends these photographs their irony – even in years to come, when the photographer, his models, buyers and collectors, and the writer of these lines, are all no longer among the living. Irony will stand out as Fischnaller’s most significant form of immortality, as his essential feature – in the same way we are struck by the characteristics and ironies of classical painters when we look at their work.
Josef Fischnaller is a photographer, but one who changed over to the mindset of an artist who makes images. The change came about because of a crisis which has plagued photography for years now – the decline of analog photography. Unfortunately few photographers have yet seen this as an opportunity.
Fischnaller is a well-regarded portraitist among German-speaking actors and directors. He used to get commissions from important magazines, but now that’s all in the past. Since digitization, big publishing houses are fighting for their lives: they are no longer able to commission impressive portraits which get their authenticity from a process of observation. Josef Fischnaller is not the only photographer disoriented by this development. But he is the only one who came to the right conclusion years ago, taking an interest in the value of his own pictures, clearly developing their value. For a career photographer with an established portfolio of clients, taking complete personal responsibility like this is a big leap, an enormous one in fact. This was a leap, moreover, that graduates of major photography schools never had to make, blessed as they are with teachers and teaching.
Fischnaller also recognized that it took presumption, arrogance even, to create something important.
This was not small-scale presumption: Fischnaller put himself on an equal footing with the Old Masters, their portraits and still lives. He came to realize that the immense definition of digital photography, while not appropriate for many photographs, is something very like the definition achieved by classical portrait and still-life painters in past centuries, when definition was referred to as precision. In the classical art of the late middle ages, early modernity, and the age of Enlightenment, definition and precision – down to the re- production of hairs and pores – was regarded as an indispensable element of great artworks. It was the nobility and the church above all who wanted to immortalize themselves in these pictures. However, since the beginning of pluralism, these works also reveal to us how artists managed to ignore their commissioners’ requirements and desires. This took place with the same irony that characterizes Fischnaller’s images today. In other words, Fischnaller soaked up the spirit of the period as well as its techniques – but without alienating his clients, since he was his own client.
Yes, Fischnaller’s pictures are presumptuous, because he makes use of the available past, but without making it the dominant element of the picture. In this way, Fischnaller positioned himself between several stools, and was spurned by some critics as a copyist or a trivial pop-culture artist.
But there is more to Fischnaller’s photographs than this. Their additional element is immediately striking, because it is immediately visible, quite unlike anything else in these pictures: it is the simultaneity of the unsimultaneous, the sometimes brazen coupling of past worlds with descriptions of the contemporary one. This was not Fischnaller’s theme when he began his second photographic life eight years ago: Fischnaller and his critics only later recognized how these temporal set-pieces had emerged through experimentation. That’s how it is with him, as with any great visual artist: his work not only reflects his own and his sitters’ personalities, it creates its own personality, which appears almost as an autonomous being. In other words: both now and in future, it’s not necessary to know much about Fischnaller in order to understand his work as something distinctive and extremely individual, something that speaks for itself: for the self within it. There lies difference between good and great.
Like the painters of that precision-hungry age, Fischnaller does not challenge technology as such – then as now, anyone who had the desire for it could just buy it. Instead, he is working out a personal style, which becomes more and more obsessive the more closely it is based on that of his predecessors. Fischnaller forces the new and contemporary, and the technology which characterizes it, to become just a tiny percentage of the whole. He makes the new and contemporary establish itself within that broader structure, making itself noticeable for all time. To see that and to recognize that, should be easy enough for anyone, even if the spectator cannot explain the differences at all. And that is the difference between good and great too: great art simply happens, it bubbles up from the unconscious, bringing the repressed and the longed-for to the light of day.
In this way, in his work’s second season, Fischnaller distances himself more than ever from preserving of his models’ personality, or foregrounding what they bring to the scene. He simply allows his knowledge and talent to happen. He consciously entrusts control to the unconscious behind the camera. Fischnaller is leaving behind his vocation as a photographer, becoming something like a chronicler, one who, using yesterday’s gaze and today’s technology, seeks out the essential in the present day. In front of his large- format pictures, he turns all of us into astonished spectators, once again in need of construction, in these times of almost religiously-applied deconstruction.
Irony – which is also, and not least, self-irony – is and remains the ultimate fine-bladed knife, the intellectual potential of Fischnaller’s work. Here something new is created. Even today, it has greatness; in the future, it will be a better depiction of our present, then already past, than all the works which today call for grand interpretation.
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