Obituary: Sandra Fisher
Friday 23 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.
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