Obituary: Sandra Fisher

Sandra Fisher, painter: born New York City 6 May 1947; married 1983 R. B. Kitaj (one son, and one stepson and one stepdaughter); died London 19 September 1994.

THE GUINNESS Book of Records credits Sandra Fisher with the largest painting ever made. When last year she exhibited several pictures commissioned by the brewers Heineken for use in an advertising campaign, enthusiastic Dutch art students made a blow-up copy of one into a 300ft by 100ft hoarding. After hanging outside for 36 hours, it was cut into little pieces which were sold for charity. It is an ironic achievement because in scale as in other artistic matters Sandra Fisher flew in the face of fashion. Her work was intimate, joyous, optimistic and observational, qualities as inimical to the prevailing avant-garde as they proved endearing to a broad public. Boating on Regent's Park, which was used for the Days on the Water poster by London Underground, proved so popular as a postcard at the Transport Museum shop that she was invited to make a second image for the series, the only artist to be so honoured.

As much as her images brought moments of joy into the rushed lives of London commuters, so her bubbly but serene personality was a source of inspiration to many at the core of London's art community. For 24 years she was the partner, and latterly the wife, of R. B. Kitaj, a seminal force in that constellation of subject-painters he himself labelled the 'School of London'. Fisher was unswerving in her conviction that she was married to one of the great artists of the late 20th century, but she managed to preserve her professional independence. She was also a counterweight to her husband's angst and pessimism. Kitaj's dedication of his First Diasporist Manifesto (1989) reads 'For Sandra, who puts me down when I complain, replying she'd rather live in these times (as a woman and artist) than any other'.

Fisher's painterly language may seem to owe little to any stylistic development later than Fauvism, but she was adamant that her work belonged to the present. As she told John McEwen in an interview in the Independent Magazine on the occasion of her first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery (she had had three previous London shows at other galleries) in 1993:

It may look as if I don't owe anything to the greatest aspects of the Modernism of this century, but, in fact, I think about it all the time. I think of Modernism as a kind of boldness of spirit to say how strongly you feel about your subject, but also to find a simplicity, if it is possible.

As a student at the California Institute of the Arts in the mid- 1960s, she experimented with minimalism, making sculptures inspired by Carl Andre, but she soon realised that her compelling ambition was to paint after nature in the manner of her heroes, among whom Delacroix, Monet and Matisse were clearly the principals. It was from the Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha that she established her golden rule of always completing a given picture in one session, however many models were involved or whatever the size of the canvas. This, coupled with her dedication to painting sur le motif - in the presence of the subject - explains the modesty of her scale. She was almost fanatical in her devotion to this principle. For the Heineken paintings, for example, she imported tons of sand into her Kensington studio for her models to luxuriate upon.

Realism was no damper to romanticism in Fisher's case. She loved to cast her models in theatrical roles, painting the black American actor Rob Wisdom as Othello, for instance. At the time of her death she was preparing a whole Shakespeare series for the new Globe Theatre on Bankside. She collaborated on several occasions with the poet Thomas Meyer in fine limited-edition books, usually of his interpretative translations ('tracings' as he called them) of German poetry. The most recent, published by Enitharmon Press this summer, couples monotypes by Fisher with versions of Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke and others. Monotype, the most painterly and spontaneous of printmaking media, was one at which Sandra Fisher excelled.

More than any other subject, the male nude brought out her joie de vivre and liberal contentment. A certain ingenuousness contrasts with Kitaj's treatment of the body, not to mention the attitude of Lucian Freud, whom she none the less revered. Her eroticism was closer in spirit to that of her friend David Hockney. A painting of Tullio, one of her favourite models, has the young man reclining on a Corbusier chaise-longue - the one used by Kitaj in his painting The Refugees (Cecil Court, London WC2), 1983-84 - reading a copy of a Heinrich Boll paperback, the 'o' and umlaut on the cover coyly echoing his similarly shaped genitalia.

Fisher was ever compassionate to the needs of her sitters, most of them friends and fellow painters, and it is telling how many are reading. I sat for her on several occasions, usually posing at the some time for Maurice Cockrill, the two painters sometimes including each other in the composition. Her image of me reading from the journal Modern Painters wearing a greatcoat and beret against the cold of Cockrill's studio was reproduced as the advertisement for her Lefevre show. Other painters she painted and sat for included Christopher Cook, Maggi Hambling, John Dewe Matthews and Susannah Tannenbaum. And, of course, she several times portrayed Kitaj, most memorably recuperating on the chaise-longue after suffering a heart attack in 1989.

Her sudden death leaves Kitaj, 15 years her senior, with a 10-year- old son to raise, just as the suicide of his first wife 25 years ago left him with children aged six and eleven, children for whom Sandra Fisher became mother. The fierce antagonism of newspaper critics towards Kitaj's recent late retrospective - in contrast to the response of an admiring public - made for a stressful last summer for a woman who will be remembered by many for her almost saintly happiness.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz