While researching visionary art, it becomes clear that ‘visionary art according to fantastic realism,’ saturates online platforms. At first, I considered the work ‘kitsch’ (i.e., ornamental and decorative pieces without true artistic merit) dues to its strong connections with psychedelic art – most of the works would undoubtedly depict a meditating figure surrounded by colorful auras. However, I realized my opinion was subjective and it was essential that I traced this movement into the past to help with my research question. So that is what I did. Ernst Fuchs is one of the forerunners of this movement. His work is far from ‘kitsch’ and depicts complex erotic mythological scenes with alchemical and religious symbols.
Who was Ernst Fuchs?
Ernst Fuchs (1930-2015) was born in Vienna as an only child. His father, Maximilian Fuchs was the son of an orthodox Jewish family, who turned down a career as a Rabbi and married a Christian woman. When the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938, Maximilian emigrated to Shanghai. However, Ernst remained in Vienna with his mother. Due to Nazi legislation, it was illegal for a Christian woman to raise a Jewish child, and he was deported to a transit camp for children of mixed racial origin. Subsequently, his mother agreed to a formal divorce from her husband, saving her son from the extermination camp. At the age of 12, Fuchs was baptised as a Roman Catholic, which would continue to protect him from the horrors of World War Two.
Nevertheless, in 1945 when the war ended, he enrolled in painting at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Here, he met with Arik Brauer, Rudolf Hausner, Fritz Janschka, Wolfgange Hutter, and Anton Lehmden, with whom he found the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. This group aimed to redefine renaissance painting to include Alchemical, Christian, and Jewish mysticism spurred on by Jung’s depth psychology. Fuchs began reading Jung’s work during the 1950s. The book Psychology and Alchemy (C.W. 12) profoundly affected his creative practice, evident by ‘the cycle of the unicorn’ prints produced a year after its publication (the unicorn is a mythological theme explored thoroughly in a large section of C.W. 12). In addition, the Vienna school attempted to channel their experience of the World Wars with powerful themes of pain and destruction; Fuchs described:
It was 1945. A glimmer of hope, a longing for freedom awakened in the people, still surrounded by the smoke and darkness of the ending war. Now that the war was ended in Europe, a small group of painters came together at the bomb-devastated Academy […] to start a new direction in art (Muschik 1974).
It took a long time for the group to gain recognition as the critics and public expressed great hostility towards their works. For example, at an exhibition in the Vienna Concert Hall’s foyer, the work of Fuchs, Hausner and Janschka was removed due to public outrage (Muschik, 1974). However, in 1958 Fuchs opened his own gallery, which exhibited young artists and kept the movement alive. The breakthrough for fantastic realism eventually came in 1962 when 23 artists representing the school took part in Surrealism: Fantastic Painting of the Present, an exhibition in Vienna. The Vienna school was confronted with the elite of international surrealism and came out triumphantly.
The group of fantastic realists went on to exhibit in Japan, Los Angeles, New York, and Paris, and quickly became celebrated artists at international art fairs. In 1972, Fuchs acquired an Art Noveau building threatened with demolition, the first Otto Wagner Villa in Vienna. For two years, Fuchs worked on the restoration, transforming the building into a gallery space. However, by 1988 it was converted into the Ernst Fuchs Museum which still exists today.
Ernst Fuchs and Fantastic Realism
One of fantastic realism’s defining characteristics is the dedication to traditional painting techniques – a feature that played a crucial role in Fuchs’ creative practice. Also, Fuchs believed that the master-apprentice relationship was a highly significant component of an artist’s learning process. In his memoirs, Fuchs discussed two individuals who played the role of ‘master’ to him, in his youth: Albert Von Gutersloh (1887-1973) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) (Fuchs, 1977). Von Gutersloh – the “spiritual father of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism” (Zetter, n.d) – was Fuchs’ professor at the Academy of Fine Art. However, his paintings included general still-life imagery, portraits, and landscapes, a far stretch from Fuchs’ visionary depictions.
In contrast, Fuchs’ relationship to Dalí was “written in the stars” (Caruana, 2003). He became enthralled with Dalí’s work at the age of seventeen, after viewing his painting Lugubrious Game (1929). He was instantly amazed by the recognisable yet undefinable content of his configurations, exemplified by the precision of his painting technique. Fuchs proceeded by developing a relationship with his new idol, which blossomed over the years, inspiring Fuchs to continue his painting in a similar manner; he described:
My valuable acquaintanceship with Dalí in the fifties, who became a kind of ‘protector’ for me, was no mere accident. This encounter was an omen, whose significance I immediately recognised. And I brought it back to Vienna as a fateful legacy […] it prophesied the task of founding the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism (Caruana, 2001).
Later in his life, Fuchs took on many apprentices of his own, such as Amanda Sage (b.1978) and Laurence Caruana (b.1962). Sage is currently a working artist who co-founded the Academy of Visionary Art and the Colorado Alliance of Visionary Art. Likewise, Caruana has since become a vocal advocate for fantastic realism, engaging in countless activities which continue to promote the genre; for example, he was the editor of the Visionary Revue, the Director of the Academy of Visionary Art, and the author of The First Manifesto of Visionary Art.
The Cycle of the Unicorn
In an interview with The Paris Review Fuchs described how spiritual beings inspired his creative process; he declared: “inspiration is being contacted by spirits […] inspiration is an angel giving you a message” (Matthiessen, 1963). Through this spiritual dialogue, Fuchs created visionary artworks, which he produced without any premeditation or plan. In a separate interview, Fuchs stated, “I don’t think about my work, especially while I am working. After I finish, sometimes I try to find out what I did! I just start, without a single line of preparation” (Caruana, 2004). However, this statement is not precisely true, as many of his paintings were guided by earlier etchings and studies of nature; Fuchs’ described, “some of my works were etchings first and then turned into paintings […] there’s hardly a trace of the original except the composition” (ibid). He continued:
The composition itself remains somewhat fixed. But with colour – that changes a lot, a lot more than you would expect. Then again, some paintings are done without any drawings, very spontaneously on board or canvas. And in the end, you know, I tell myself – somebody must have known it would turn out this way!
During the 1950s Fuchs produced several etchings, he called the ‘Cycle of the Unicorn.’ This five-part etching series depicts significant moments in the life of the imaginary unicorn, suggested by the titles: In the Realm of Death (1950), The Baptism of the Unicorn (1951), The Artist and the Unicorn (1951), The Generation (Birth) of the Unicorn (1952), and The Expectation of the Resurrection (1952). These images lack colour; however, they are complex erotic mythological scenes with alchemical and religious symbols. For example, The Generation (Birth) of a Unicorn depicts the sexual union between a male and a female on top of a tower, whose heads are the sun and moon. Likewise, the moon and the sun exist simultaneously on the top corners of the composition, a symbolic image seen repeatedly within alchemical texts. In addition, several crucifixes are being held outside the tower windows; one wrapped up in a serpent and another holding an executed anthropomorphic unicorn. Also, at the foot of the composition lies and angelic unicorn, resting peacefully among the rubble.
Fuchs tried to capture his imagination within his compositions and combine it with his external world experience. In his view, these two components were equal; he declared, “I realised more and more that the reality of the imagination is almost identical to the reality everyone sees” (Caruana, 2004). He continued, “so, over the course of my studies, I kept doing both – working from nature, making studies and working from my imagination” (ibid). In this way, Fuchs combined these two realities symbiotically, producing visual imagery of fantastic scenes with cultural references. In the first instance, Fuchs allowed intuition to guide the development of his compositions. Whereas his love for traditional painting techniques and art history fixed his work within the realm of cultural art.
Feature image: Tsui, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 1: Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://arthive.com/sl/ernstfuchs/works (fair use of copyright material, to foster the creation of culture and exchange of ideas).
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