"Fischl seems to be showing all, but what counts in his work is what is not stated, and can never be adequately stated. Fischl's pictures seem to promise us clarity about complex issues, but in fact suggest depth of a complexity that can never be fully deciphered. It is this that makes his pictures peculiarly opaque dreams, abysses of meaning we can never quiet climb out of once we have accepted their terms" (D. Kuspit, Fischl, New York 1987, p. 7).
The narrative that unfolds within Eric Fischl's Xmas Morn lies firmly within the disconcerting and ambiguous pictorial domain that Fischl has claimed as his own. Ostensibly a scene of what should be a festive family occasion, upon close examination the narrative begins to unravel to reveal an uncomfortable tableau that resembles anything but a happy Christmas. A mother stares blankly out at the viewer, startling us not only with her pained expression but also with the disheveled and chaotic nature of her appearance. Dressed only in her dressing gown and clutching a mug of coffee, her unkempt appearance is the antithesis of the bountiful image of motherhood that pervades the popular cultural fantasies surrounding this particular holiday. At her feet the older of her two children is engrossed with his new computer oblivious to anything or anyone around him, while her youngest child seems sadly left out of the ostensibly festive experience as he stands, half-dressed in his mother's shadow. By depicting in this way such a universally identifiable holiday as Christmas, with its high expectations of joy, happiness, and familial harmony, Xmas Morn becomes a striking example of Fischl's startlingly acute sense of the psychic split between our idealized expectations of life and the emotional and physical reality undermining them.
Fischl's masterly paintings mark what many regard as the return of the human body to contemporary painting. His distinctive painterly style has 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 bombard our modern society, Fischl is a master at depicting an explicitly modern vision of the body in real time. Unlike the airbrushed perfection that permeates the world of advertising, Fischl's style renders the body with exacting, if cruel calm. It is this quality which is one of the defining features of Xmas Morn. The mother's face comes alive with the tired, fleshy folds and imperfections that become portraits from life of the character who inhabits it. Fischl's flesh is not the figment of an artist's idealizing imagination; for him, surface flesh is a signifier both of internal temperament and coolly observed presence.
However, Fischl's intentions are not to judge: 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" (E. Fischl, quoted in Eric Fischl: Paintings and Drawings 1979-2001, 2003, p. 99).