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

Circa 2004/2005


I edited this chapter in 2008, removed some pedantic semi-colons, and replaced nonexisting words by words that actually 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 olí lilí 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.

©Nicolas