24 July, 2008

"The Old Man's Boat" by Eric Fischl (1982)

This was written around 2005. I edited it, removed some pedantic semi-colons, and replaced nonexisting words by words that actually do exist.

I am going to focus on a recent painting. Eric Fischl is probably not a painter most of you have ever heard of, and as a matter of fact, I am myself not extremely familiar with him and his work. So mostly I have never read anything about Fischl nor this particular painting and everything I am about to talk of comes strictly from my good ol’ lil’ self and therefore I bear no claim to exactitude or anything whatsoever.

There, now I can say whatever I want. So, I assume at first one feels a bit bad, maybe even disturbed, by this weird scene. First thing you think of is: "what is this about?" As for myself, I first thought of some dubious orgy organised on said old man's boat far away from civilisation, in the middle of the sea for the purpose of ghastly fornication and God knows what. And I probably am not too wrong about that. Indeed, most of the characters in there are naked. Let's proceed to the analysis now.

This is obviously depicting debauchery. People lying about, fishing, drinking beer, etc. So what we do make of it? I'll start with the middle part of the picture. The naked woman with generous hips is resting on a kind of bluish mattress. You can, according to me, date the scene by the sunbathing marks on her behind; people wore bikinis of that kind in the 60's or something, probably through the 70's as well. Not sure what the relevance of that detail is, but it's there. Now, one of the very first things I noticed in that painting was the dog, it's a Dalmatian, and he seems about to get it on with the naked lady. It's a disturbing hint to zoophilia and it strongly adds to the general feeling of decadence and icky atmosphere. His forelegs are over her right leg and well, he seems about to do her, sorry. Interestingly enough, a little on the background, you can see a parallel thing going: some naked buddy is crawling towards another dude whose face is literally cut off by the edge of the painting. Hint to homosexuality? Maybe. This would not seem too heterogeneous to the ambient feel of the scene so I assume this is highly likely. [Given the times in which we live, I feel obliged to actually state that nothing here is meant against homosexuals; the painting is from 1982, and it brings together forbidden and culturally tabooed sexualities, and homosexuality is part of it, that is all.]

The debauchery being exposed, now comes the little story of the painting. As you can see, everyone is naked except one. That one person to be non-naked is a woman on the foreground. Significantly enough, she is wearing a safety suit and is dressed in her bikini, unlike the other woman who wears neither. Also, she is fishing, with the fishing-rod between her toes. Like the naked lady, we cannot see her face because she looks away from us. Her hair is brighter than the naked lady too. And she is the only one really sitting; the others are either lying or "sitting" in too loose positions to be termed thusly. I think this is highly meaningful. What is even more so, is the fact that she is pointing. She points towards this big high wave that is coming towards the boat and threatens to swallow it like God's Judgement over the sinners. No one in the boat is looking in the wave's direction except maybe the naked lady, but if she does, she doesn't seem to be alarmed or to perceive any imminent danger. Again, the parallel between the two only women of the boat is very interesting.

It is time to get to one of the most disturbing element of the painting: the beer-drinking dude. What is disturbing, apart from the fact that he's unashamedly showing us his willy, is that he is actually looking at us. In other words, he sees you. That includes you in the painting; you're not outside of this ghastly orgy, you're right in it. You're on the boat with them, same planet, same boat, same wave going to drown you soon. Moreover, for those who still have the title in mind--The Old Man's Boat--where is he? this old man? He's nowhere to be seen, so the idea is that maybe you are him. Maybe the old man is nowhere to be seen because he is in the position of the watcher, yours. How do you feel now? Now that you have become the dreadful pervert old man who organises homosexualozoophiliac orgies far away from official waters? And it's all because of the beer-drinking dude. If he wasn't looking at you, you'd not have become such a vile creature. I don't like naked dudes to stare at me drinking beer and exposing their floppy cocks like that. I admit it is a problem to me. Be decent you fucker! Anyway...

As a conclusion, we may see this painting as some dark portrayal of modern times, decadence, and incoming doom (the wave). There are those who see the wave (the dressed and life-jacketed lady) and will therefore be saved because they see it coming and have taken the measures to survive the event, and there are the others, who are too much into their passivity and decadence to see anything coming. And that beer-drinking dude, he'll be a ton less proud about his cock when he is drowning in the cold depths of this sea, let me tell you.


As a bonus, I share with you the comment written about this chapter by artist Laura Z

"I think your analysis of The Old Man's Boat, the Old Man's Dog is pretty spot on. I hadn't really noticed the wave, the single dressed girl pointing at the wave but I did get that feeling of decadence.

I'm not familiar with Eric Fischl's works, either, but paging quickly through that site you can see some themes: homosexuality, lost youth, corruption, illicit lovers/sex.

The thing that struck me about "The Old Man's Boat, The Old Man's Dog" was the title, at first: you rightly pointed out that the one female figure has tan lines from a 60's-style bathing suit. I think the term "Old Man" was kind of popular for "husband" back then: "Meet my old man, meet my old lady." So the boat could belong to an absentee husband. Given that boats are rather expensive and take money to maintain - you tend to be well-off if you have one that can hold that many people - the old man's boat is quite possibly one of the orgy participant's husbands. I don't think the old man himself is there, given that everyone looks relatively youthful.

And then the dog: man's best friend. There's almost an outrage in the sentence: whoever has access to the boat also has access to the dog. His dog is a dalmation, and it is worth noting here that dalmations are reputedly high-strung and difficult dogs because they're so purebred (apologies if anyone owns one - I'm only saying what I've heard). My sense of this particular dalmation owner is that he's older, well-off, and likes to collect things for appearance and status.

So to put some context around the painting, my take is that some spoiled high-strung younger trophy wife got bored with the "Old Man" and took his boat and his dog out for an orgiastic cruise with her friends and lovers. And, as you rightly pointed out, it appears they are in a heap of trouble given the high wave and incoming storm.

Thanks for sharing your analysis - I love dusting off my old Art History notes and seeing what's out there. It's always helpful when someone helps explain a little too!"


emil-szarvas said...

As to the oncoming storm you predicted, we here in the U.S. are already experiencing it a la the recession we're now in. I'm already thinking of repatriating to another country lol. However in all honesty you're analysis is really good.

m. stevens said...

Children also call their father the 'old man.'

My guess is that these are college students, or just young adults, on the boat of the father of one of the kids.
The girl in the life vest, who
seems the only one bothering to be aware of her surroundings, may be the daughter.

Of course this is just one of any number of possible interpretations. I doubt Fischl wants to make things any too clear -- that would just be illustration.