Eric Fischl's Daddy's Girl is one of the artist's most compelling paintings to date. He depicts a father and daughter, alone, lying within an altogether idyllic setting. Fischl renders the scene from a low angle, from a vantage point that suggests a hidden angle or voyeur's scope. In this way, the viewer enters into a world that ordinarily takes place behind closed doors, which thereby implicates the viewer in an act which ordinarily would not be seen.
Daddy's Girl most likely developed from a series of photographs that Fischl made in St. Tropez (see fig). This series, which was the artist's first foray into photography, resulted from a trip to the island in 1980. The entire portfolio of images spans the years 1980 to 1988. While on the Côte d'Azur, Fischl was struck by the ease with which the population--most of them European vacationers--displayed their own nude bodies. He recalls:
"In 1980, in St. Tropez, the experience of being there was so overwhelming that I couldn't believe what I was looking at. I had no idea how I felt about it. I was so compelled by what I was seeing, I don't know whether it was a joke, or whether it was wonderful, or horrifying, or stupid, or everything. I was seeing people on the beach who were naked, who were behaving in a totally socialized way. So that their body language was social language rather than private language. But they were naked, which was the most private space. And so that contradiction was compelling in and of itself. A lot of the gestures were ones that I could take off the beach and put in a living room, or in a bedroom, or in a car, and they would still be active and not about lounging on the beach, which is a whole other kind of body language" (E. Fischl quoted in Bomb, no. 50, Winter 1994).
What is so captivating about Daddy's Girl, to which the artist alluded above, is the figures' isolation and the privacy that this implies. Further, the altogether perfection of the figures' environment also contributes to unnerve the viewer, throwing the scene into a kind of hyper-reality, where perfection is rendered as realism. Fischl's craftsmanship is his ability to manipulate paint and palette in a form of realism that provokes as it fascinates, repels as it seduces.
Fischl's realism is also uniquely American as it revolves around the thwarting of the viewer's expectations while depicting a setting of pure banality. As in the paintings of Edward Hopper, any underlying perversity is not given outright, but implied, which forces the viewer into the position of unwilling voyeur. Do we observe what the artist believes to be the hidden truth, or is it an illusion that we alone bring to the painting's content from our own psyches? Fischl always maintains the cool detachment of the Postmodern painter, rendering the viewer's observation of the painting as an active part of the painting by their participation.
In many ways, Fischl's work also calls to mind the Polish-born, French painter, Balthus, whose work straddles the line between an almost magical realism and surrealism. Like Fischl, Balthus is a master of nuance; his interior scenes are so carefully composed that they feel dreamlike, almost silent in their tranquility, but the viewer is often left with a palpable sense of unease. The adolescent girls of Balthus's paintings appear more woman than girl, and the artist plays up the ambiguity of their age, maturity and sexuality. Their youthful appearance often belies what is perceived as a more mature, sexual knowledge. Like Balthus, Fischl creates near-perfect worlds whose inhabitants seem to possess an unattainable (often sinister or lascivious) knowledge, often one inextricably tied to sexuality or shared sexual behavior, which the viewer is left to infer.
Such visual questioning takes on deeper psychological meaning in Daddy's Girl, especially since the two principle characters are father and daughter. According to the artist, he initially intended to include a mother figure within the painting that would have acted as a sort of self-portrait in many ways. After working and re-working the piece, he ultimately took the mother figure out, leaving in its place a tall glass of iced tea. In many ways, Fischl's deliberation resulted in the perfect pictorial allusion-the glass symbolically represents female sexuality. Its prominent placement-very close to the center of the canvas itself-heightens the sexual tension of the piece, yet its banality underscores the overriding normalcy of the entire scene. Fischl explains:
"What I was trying to do was set up a situation that brings into question one's preconceptions about the scene. The viewer's first instinct would be that the scene suggest a dangerous situation, but there would be nothing to indicate that it really was, other than that a child and man were naked. But it was their nakedness and aloneness that seemed potentially transgressive" (E. Fischl quoted in Eric Fischl, 1970-2000, New York, 2000, p. 66).
It is this kind of frission that Fischl's work is best known for. Just as Balthus was a master of subliminal sexual impulses, Fischl reveals a world of secret thoughts. By both artists, the viewer is rendered suspicious of every gesture, pose and attitude of figures whose environment appears altogether serene. Arthur C. Danto describes Fischl as a moralist, whose work ultimately holds up a kind of "ethical mirror" to us, without mercy.
Robert Enright explains: "There are times in looking at his [Fischl's] work when you feel you are less a viewer than a private investigator, wondering about the motivations and actions of the characters in the paintings. What you end up activating is something like a forensic gaze. While the paintings aren't exactly crime scenes, they do seem to be places where damage has either been done or is about to be done. This is a painted world where an observant and critical questioning is a necessary attitude." (R. Enright quoted in Eric Fischl, 1970-2000, New York, 2000, p. 66).