- Carel Visser 1928–2015
- Original title
- Object: 1372 × 302 × 92 mm
- Purchased 1978
Carel Visser born 1928
T02313 Fish Spine
Welded sheet metal, 46 3/8 x 10 1/4 x 2 1/8 (117.8 x 26 x 5.4)
Purchased from Mrs Margareet Visser through the Whitechapel Art Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1978
Prov: The artist's wife, Mrs Margareet Visser, Amsterdam
Exh: Carel Visser, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, January-February 1978 (7, the work's Dutch title incorrectly spelt with an 'n' in place of the final 'a'); Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, March-April 1978 (7); Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, May-June 1978 (7)
This work's Dutch title, 'Ruggegraat', does not imply any reference to fish in particular. It simply means spine or backbone (of a being, species not specified).
However, Visser does not regard any title he gives as an exact indication of what he is trying to express in the work, but rather as a foothold or way in for the spectator, from which the latter can develop his own ideas.
One of the things that appeals to him about the title 'Ruggegraat' is its sound. Roughly this is 'roocherchrart', if each 'ch' is pronounced as in 'loch'. In deciding what title this work should have in English, he felt that 'spine' by itself was too compact a word, and that it might tend to give the work a specifically human connotation in the spectator's mind, which would restrict its meaning more than he intended. Thus the choice of the title 'Fish Spine' was influenced not only by his long-standing interest in fish but also by the fact that the idea of fish makes the spectator think of the horizontal, thus suggesting more general readings for this sculpture than the simple title 'Spine' might seem to imply when given to an upright form.
Some years before 1954, Visser visited the studios of Brancusi and Giacometti. Brancusi's concern with the repetition of one given element in a single upright sculpture influenced him strongly. He was greatly shocked by Giacometti's 'Woman with her Throat cut' 1932, in which vertebrae are exposed. This led to his experimenting with loose bones laid on a base. These themes, of repetition and vertebrae, are combined in 'Fish Spine'.
Visser had been interested in the concern of both Brancusi and Giacometti with gravity, which he felt they acknowledged by seeking solutions to the problem of relating a sculpture to the ground in a natural way. He considered that gravity in this sense was not of central importance to Picasso and Gonzalez as sculptors, and their sculpture therefore interested him less. An interesting aspect of Brancusi's concern with gravity in sculpture was his use, paradoxically, of motifs based on creatures which in their living form move as though no laws of gravity exist, namely fish and birds. These subjects recurred in Visser's own work of the early 1950s, both overtly and in the expressive character of various works which might at first appear unrelated, such as 'Airship' 1954, which Visser thinks of as a hollow fish.
In 'Fish Spine' and other works of this period such as 'Reed' 1954, Visser's intention was to make a flat sculpture, in conscious reaction against the three-dimensional complication of, for example, Gonzalez, in whose work it seemed to him that the spectator had to struggle to some extent to find the structure. He wanted to make sculpture that would be equally effective while using fewer variables. An influence on Visser's concern with flatness was those sculptures of Arp in which a flat outline is projected in depth to make a three-dimensional form. In his determination to throw out many available properties of sculpture in a wish to find the basic ones, Visser was influenced by all three sculptors, Brancusi, Arp and Giacometti.
One of Visser's central concerns was with revealing structure. This preoccupation underlay his interest in such things as bones, bicycles, insects, lobsters and crabs - all of them things in which the spectator can easily grasp how they are built up and put together. This was also one of the characteristics that interested him most in Brancusi's sculpture. The 'Endless Column', in particular, was a direct influence on 'Fish Spine'. The same interest led him to natural history museums to study and draw underlying structures, including spines. Among the sculptures which resulted directly from his museum studies of vertebrae were 'Crossing' 1953 (now in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), which was followed by 'Vertebrae', a work which exists in two versions of 1953-4 (coll. Mrs Margareet Visser) and 1954 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague), and then the Tate's sculpture. 'Fish Spine', which Visser saw as a vertical development from 'Vertebrae', was the last of his sculptures to be developed directly from his studies made in natural history museums. The catalogue of his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in May-June 1960 reproduces (n.p.) a drawing which Visser thinks he made shortly before the Tate's sculpture, which is a semi-invented variation on the spine motif, developed from the drawings of real spines which he had made in museums.
A further source of inspiration was 'primitive' art, which at this period Visser often discussed with the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. The Tate's sculpture had a specific source in a Dogon mask, consisting of the 'face' element surmounted by tall vertical members crossed, like a ladder, by horizontal bars, which Visser had studied in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Brought up in the countryside, he also had a great interest in the structures and shapes of farm implements, which were a strong influence on 'Fish Spine' and works like it. One implement, a hay rake known in Dutch as a rekel, has a close formal connection with this work.
The Tate's is the only version of the 'Ruggegraat' motif in Visser's work in either sculpture or drawings, but he sees a close connection between it and those of his wood engravings in which a single horizontal ('horizon') line is crossed by vertical bars of different lengths, each of which it bisects. However, around 1954 Visser made a number of vertical stacked sculptures, a division of his work into which 'Fish Spine' falls - for example 'Jacob's Ladder' and 'Four Elements', both of 1954. Two of these were exceptionally slender: a column made of three or four standing human figures stacked directly one above another (which preceded 'Fish Spine') and 'Reed' 1954 (which came after 'Fish Spine').
'Fish Spine' consists of the repetition eleven times of a unit consisting of a closed, vertical cylinder, to which are welded two horizontal spikes pointing in opposite directions. Both the cylinders (formed from flat sheets of steel) and the spikes were made by Visser specially for this sculpture. None of the variations in sharpness or thickness is deliberate; Visser simply stacked the different repeating elements in the sequence in which they happened to come. When the structure was complete but the work was still warm, he dipped it into oil to give it a surface. Although he has provided elementary maintenance instructions, he accepts natural changes in the work's surface, through atmosphere and time, as being part of its nature, an acknowledgement that in life everything decays.
The cast concrete base (19.4 x 30.2 x 9.3cm), made in 1954, is not part of the work, but is Visser's preferred form of presentation of it, no additional pedestal being necessary between it and the ground. He finds that the work is often displayed to best advantage when placed some 10 to 15cm from a wall, but a fully free-standing position is perfectly acceptable to him.
(This entry is based on information given by the artist on 21 August 1978).
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.750-2, reproduced p.750