- PETER FISCHER: 1922 - 2000
was a distinguished member of a very select group - historians
of mosaic - and his death from heart failure at the age of
78 on Tuesday, 18 July, 2000 was a great loss to those of
us who love the art, especially as he was working on an important
book, a survey of the best international contemporary mosaic.
Peter ardently believed in mosaic as an art medium for our
time. As he said in a speech in Venice in 1996 - "There can
be no doubt that mosaic is not a has-been art which expired
during the Renaissance, but that it has had a real rebirth.
Nor can there be any doubt that contemporary mosaic is capable
of being really and truly contemporary, and able to make use
of the stylistic pluralism of 20th century art. The very ancient
art of mosaic can also be very modern - the reason being that
composition with small pieces of marble or glass or other
less costly materials lends itself to simplification, to stylization,
to shimmering spirituality. From the earliest beginnings mosaic
has applied the principles of French pointillism and Italian
divisionismo, of Op Art, of assemblage and montage, of objets
trouvés. Indeed, as the quantity of mosaics today is without
doubt much greater than ever, there is for me no doubt that
the artistic quality of the best contemporary mosaics is at
least equal to those of Antiquity and the Middle Ages - and
I don't think I am sticking my neck out by saying 'at least'."
Peter Fischer was born on 4 April 1922 in Brieg, which was
in Germany at that time but is now Brezg in Poland, and he
was educated at the local Gymnasium. Then Hitler happened
and in October 1939 the 17-year-old Peter served as a landboy
or "farmer's aid", followed by further compulsory "Reichsarbeitsdienst",
1940 he began studying Egyptology at Berlin University but after
a year or so he was called up to serve in the German army. He was
posted to Frankfurt, Berlin, Italy (where he learned fluent Italian
and saw the mosaics of Palermo and Monreale) and Tunisia. In May
1943 he parted company from the Nazi army and became a war prisoner
of the Allies, first in North Africa and later in the United States.
1946 he was back home in Germany as editor of the Munich-based magazine
Heute, published by the US army. He had found his niche,
or rather one of them. For the next ten years he edited various
German journals, including the Frankfurter Rundschau, which
is to this day one of Germany's leading newspapers. Then in 1956
he began a six-year stint as an editor with BBC radio in London.
this point he decided to become a freelance journalist, specialising
in the visual arts and theatre and of course mosaic. He wrote mostly
for German newspapers and magazines but also gave talks for radio
in German, English, Italian or French - on one occasion he broadcast
on Vatican Radio. Mainly he covered cultural events in London but
he also travelled a great deal and was able to report on excavations
in Beirut, archaeology in Tunisia and so forth. He was also involved
in the birth of AIMC, the International Association of Contemporary
met Peter in 1990; his English, both spoken and written, was flawless.
He taught me the difference between "militate" and "mitigate". Doubtless
his Italian and French were equally accomplished.
Fischer's magnum opus was his book Mosaic: History and
Technique (Thames & Hudson 1969), which he wrote in German
but which was also translated into English and Italian. Long
out of print it is well worth searching for a copy, not merely
for the superb survey of classical, mediaeval and modern mosaics,
but also for the closing chapter, a technical survey of tesserae
and their composition. Writing of smalti he says, "There is
little doubt that there is an element of white (or rather
polychrome) magic which is indeed hard to convey. To understand
it one would have to imagine old Angelo Orsoni, the owner
of a Venetian company of world renown, sitting in his blue
boiler-suit by the window not far from his furnace, having
a sample lump of molten glass paste brought to him, and dipping
it into a bucket of cold water before comparing it critically
with the client's specimen; then, without using scales, carefully
taking a spoonful of cobalt powder from a battered cocoa tin
in order to deepen the ultramarine of the mixture - and repeating
the process until the required shade was matched precisely".
greatly admired the Orsoni factory and the marvellous mosaics by
Angelo's son Lucio, and contributed a chapter to the book about
the firm, I colori della luce (The Colours of Light, 1996).
He also wrote the text for Lucio Orsoni - born for mosaic,
I had ample opportunity to observe in the decade of our friendship
he loved to discuss and argue; on my last visit to him, as he lay
weak and thin on his hospital bed with death only days away, he
protested strongly when I attempted to leave, saying he wanted to
discuss the Weltanschauung of the Jesuit scientist and seer Teilhard
de Chardin for at least five hours.
fact his love of fiery argument combined with his magisterial judgements
could be a problem - over the years he quarreled with more than
a few, including people in the mosaic world, and sometimes the ice
became permanent. But to me and to many he was not only a splendid
scholar but a good friend; I found him unstinting in his willingness
to provide copy for the newsletter and website Mosaic Matters.
taught me a great deal and not just about mosaic; most importantly
that when you chink wine glasses with friends you must hold the
glass not by the bowl but by the stem - only thus do you obtain
a truly musical chime.
miss him very much, and so will the world of mosaic.