This remarkable painting of a naked woman caught in the seemingly routine act of applying her make-up is an exceptional example of Eric Fischl's brand of inherently modern figure painting. In Vanity, Fischl updates the art historical tradition of intimately depicting nude women washing or bathing in their boudoirs. He replaces the coy and demure women of Rubens and Degas with a naked figure displayed with remarkable candor, filling the canvas with abundant sexual tension that electrifies the viewer.
Painted in 1984, Vanity was conceived partly as an in-joke between Fischl and the New York Times art critic, Peter Schjeldahl. It depicts a woman sitting naked in a garden, engrossed in the act of applying her make-up. Between the spread of her legs is an edition of Vanity Fair magazine from May 1984, open at a feature article about Fischl, written by Schjeldahl himself. A photograph of Fischl (taken by the famed photographer Arnold Newman) is positioned to suggest a phallus, or a miniature, fully developed human in the act of being born. The diminutive male figure also has parallels with the image of a small boy that Fischl includes in many of his most celebrated paintings, such as Bad Boy, 1981, caught in the act of stealing a glimpse of the naked women that fill his growing sexual imagination. The gigantic nature of the woman, in relation the male protagonist, is indicative of Fischl's belief in the power and mystery of female sexuality.
In Fischl's paintings nudity, and by extension sexuality, is explored. Unexpected situations force us to confront some of our own thoughts and feelings about sex. Vanity is a brazen challenge to notions of prudishness, depicting what is usually a very private moment taking place in a very public arena. Although the subject might feel protected from public view by some of the large trees in the background, the clear view out to the horizon, on the right of the canvas, lends a voyeuristic quality to the tableaux. This ambiguity adds to the both the sexual and psychic tension of the work. As a viewer, exploring this scene we are forced to question our own motives. We are drawn in to the image while at the same time feeling repulsed for doing so. In this sense, Fischl appears to explore and question the sense of shame and self-consciousness that are so embedded in Judeo-Christian attitudes to sex and the human body. However, Fischl's intentions are not to judge, he paints only to raise the questions we all know need to be asked. He paints what he sees, but as a witness not a voyeur, he leaves the viewer to play that role.
'The relationship between what something means and how it is stated - it is always in flux. It is always a matter of proportion. It is always a surprise. There is a seduction to description. The seduction is that anything can be described in its greatest and most precise detail, and to do so will yield its deepest truth. But emotions distort. They shrink or enlarge or color the forms of the world. They animate objects in surprising unnerving ways. This conflict between emotional needs and the pursuit of perfection, is what gives my work its vulnerability' (quoted in Eric Fischl: Paintings and Drawings 1979-2001, 2003, p.99).
Fischl's paintings mark, what many regard as, the return of the human body to contemporary painting. His painterly style and his portrayal of the female figure have drawn on the influences of a number of historical painters such as Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and American artists like Edward Hopper. But in contrast to the thousands of images of human female perfection that we are bombard with in our modern society, Fischl is a master at depicting a truly modern vision of today's human body. Fischl builds on this tradition to work in a style that renders the skin with a personality of its own. It is this quality which is one of the defining features of Vanity. With the subject's face obscured by the hand-held mirror it is left to the folds, imperfections and infinite details of the skin to display the character of the person who inhabits it. Fischl's flesh is not the figment of an artist's romantic imagine, for him it is a signifier of modern day reality. In an interesting parallel, the woman in Vanity is "painting" her own face, the only part of her body that she apparently feels uncomfortable at leaving naked.
'The naked bodies in Fischl have a glorious, untroubled, meaty physicality - the seated figure in Vanity, 1984, is particularly triumphant - but in ways not easily defined they are unmistakably the bodies of our own day' (J. Russell, "Art: At The Whitney, 28 Eric Fischl Paintings", The New York Times, 21 February 1986, p. C25).
The dual physicality of both the paint and the flesh is a much a part of Fischl's working method as it is for the desire to depict the modern human body. Since the 1970s he has used photographs to make his paintings. Often hiring actors to become his models he places them in his chosen environment, and with out direction, observes and photographs the results. He then reproduces these photographs in painterly form, the images helping to give the effect he requires. 'There is something you can get from a photograph that you can't get any other way: awkwardness...For me, the photo is a view into the soul of a character because so much of the arrested motion is unselfconscious' (quoted in Eric Fischl: Paintings and Drawings 1979-2001, 2003, p. 100).
Fischl is also a master at creating a sense of narrative in his paintings. He creates his pictures as if he were constructing a novel. Every element is carefully selected, placed and rendered with precisely the same amount of detail and thought as the next. It is this element of logic, of thinking it over, which makes the image so compelling. This painting mixes elements of old and modern art together in a form of collage that seems recognizable, yet at the same time slightly unnerving. The image of the nude female form at its center is familiar to us, with countless examples from art history, but her surroundings are not. Gone are the safe interiors of the bedroom or the boudoir and they are replaced by the uncontrolled gaze of the outside world. With Vanity, Fischl has revamped the romantic notion of the female body with an inherently modern version of 20th century femininity.