This memoir was written at the request of Brigid Marlin, who published it in Ernst Fuchs: Master, Mystic and Mentor in 2017 ~ a book which gathered together a number of recollections from Fuchs' family, assistants and friends. My recollections appear alongside those of Daniel Friedemann, Michael Fuchs, De Es, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, Amanda Sage, Oleg Korolev, Kuba Ambrose ~ and, of course, Brigid Marlin...

       I wrote it one year before his death in 2015. 

Fragments, Memories & Momentary Epiphanies

Recollections of Ernst Fuchs


L. Caruana 2014

       Looking back over the years I spent with Ernst Fuchs, I feel obliged to condense my myriad impressions into one significant moment. The image comes to me, strangely silent but redolent with meaning: as he greets me upon his return from abroad, we shake hands and he gazes at me over his glasses - then gives me the look. Those dark penetrating eyes, which have gazed beyond the veil of this existence and rendered countless ethereal forms, pose the unspoken question: Have you been working? Have you too spent the last weeks in silent contemplation before the easel, rendering life’s greater mysteries in paint?

       For Ernst Fuchs, the artist’s vocation was singular and absolute. Despite his numerous obligations to family, colleagues and career, art remained his daily occupation and constant focus. As much as Ernst Fuchs, the man, was here and present in the studio, another figure always hovered invisibly above us - the eternal artist, the visionary craftsman who transcended his own times and stood in the same lineage as Michelangelo, Blake, Rossetti and Moreau.

       Ernst the man was continually in sacrifice to Fuchs the eternal artist. As his assistant and apprentice, I quickly learned to make this vital distinction between ‘Ernst’ and ‘Fuchs’. Ernst the man, I hesitate to recall, was full of contradictions. Indeed, I’ve rarely interacted with someone whose response could vary so widely, from fatherly kindness to unprovoked anger or callous indifference.

       Fuchs the artist, on the other hand, was singular in his ambition. It was not ego that drove him to greatness (though he had a fair measure of that, too, when needed), but his own unrelenting genius - I mean ‘genius’ in the more ancient sense of the word, of a daimon or spirit that continually drove certain individuals to their higher calling.

       Fuchs was driven by his constant interaction with unseen spirits, crying for remembrance in paint. “What inspires your work?” I asked him one afternoon. “I’m a medium - I know that,” he replied calmly. Like the prophets of old, he could hear a chorus of angels in the sound of rushing water, or see the face of a cherub in swirls of paint.

       As chance would have it (though Fate is the more accurate word here), Fuchs and I met at a time when he was writing his autobiography, which would later be published as Phantastisches Leben. I queried him about the process and he replied, “Life is a whole, and is better approached from many directions at once. It is not linear, like a single life or lifetime. Rather, it is like a sphere, in which every point finds its opposite, except for that one Archimedean point from which the whole may be viewed. It’s like dropping a stone in a pool, and seeing the circles expand to the shore bounding existence on all sides. You are that shore, which is what you are waiting for, all your life, even though you are already there.” He often spoke to me in this enigmatic but profound manner - and I later recorded some of his more interesting pronouncements in my journal. (Fuchs himself, I should note, also kept a daily journal of his activities).

       The writer of this document met Ernst Fuchs in the summer of the year 2000, and we spent almost every hour of every day together for the next year, sometimes in Vienna and Klagenfurt, but mostly in Monaco and Castillon. I worked as his assistant and my wife Florence Ménard as his personal secretary. Though I was a paid assistant (he even covered our rent, and always picked up the check at restaurants), I tend to regard that period as my ‘apprenticeship’ - in the tradition of the Old Masters, transmitting a painting lineage from master to apprentice.

       In the intervening years, we met periodically and now, as I write these memoirs, our lives have again crossed paths, since I’m now living in Vienna and directing The Vienna Academy of Visionary Art. As the academy’s ‘Honourary Director’ Fuchs would often drop by to advise our students and speak to us about art. 

       Now eighty-four years of age, Professor Fuchs doesn’t enjoy the same vigour and vitality as the active man I knew at age seventy. Indeed, I was present (by sheer chance - or rather, Fate...) at the time of his more debilitating accidents, and witnessed part of his courageous comeback.

       But my recollection of our moments together is bound neither by chronology nor the linear unfolding of a single life. Like Fuchs, I can only approach our times together as a more timeless collection of fragments, memories and momentary epiphanies...

II. Beyond All Thought and Understanding

       Before we ever met in the flesh, Fuchs had appeared to me repeatedly in dreams. In the years after my apprenticeship, it almost became commonplace for me to meet him in the dream-sphere, and I still do so to this day... I’m enough of a rationalist to understand the doubtful nature of this claim. But Ernst Fuchs was the first person in my life to confirm the possibility of something greater, beyond the rational sphere. With gentle confidence, guidance and intelligence, he encouraged me to accept the greater truths of myth, dream, symbol and chance.

       To give but one example, we were driving in his little Fiat Cinquecento (his means of transport in France was humble - the elegant Rolls Royce was only rolled out for special occasions), when we began discussing Nietzsche, Rilke and Trakl, pursuing the general course of modern German Poetry. “It seems to me,” I said, “that the German language fell silent after World War II.” Having said that, I immediately thought of Paul Celan, but said nothing. Fuchs replied, “Yes - except for Paul Celan!” He often divined my thoughts in that way. After that incident, I gave freer reign to my thoughts in conversation, and our topics soon roamed far and wide into bizarre but fascinating territories...

       Fuchs, I should add, is as much a poet as he is a painter, and one day I hope his poetry will be appreciated for its vast scope, originality and profundity. I’ll never forget one evening in Italy, when he’d come to visit us in the hill-top village of Torri Superiore during The Visions in the Mischtechnik Seminar (where we transmit Fuchs’ painting technique to new students each summer). After a wonderful evening in the studio, Amanda Sage, Cornelia Mensdorff-Pouilly and myself accompanied him to the car waiting below. A full moon was rising over the Alpine hills.

       Suddenly, in the orange glow of a street light, Fuchs stopped and began reading aloud some of the poems he’d written that day. For a few moments, time stood still, as we listened like shadows in the darkness while word after word evoked the vast plenitude of Zeitlosigkeit and das Ewige. That evening, the German language, seemingly struck silent by the horrors of past wars, spoke once more - of the higher themes, of the Sacred, the timeless and eternal...

At Torri Superiore - Summer of 2011

            That moment echoes in my memory with so many others... One evening in the studio at Castel Caramel, Fuchs stared at me (giving me ‘the look’) while reciting from memory a long fragment by Anaxagoras: “All things will be in everything; nor is it possible for them to be apart, but all things have a portion of everything. Since they cannot be separated, or be by themselves; they must be now, just as they were in the beginning, all-together, always.” I was floored. Somehow, he’d transmitted to me a vision of oneness, beyond all thought or understanding.

       When, several months later, the ‘red catalogue’ appeared at the studio in Monaco (the catalogue for his exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moskow), I read his texts on the “Behälter des Weltalls” (the Vessel of the Universe) and was again totally floored by the experience - the sudden realization, like remembering a long-submerged memory, of ‘everything that is, was and will-be’ brought together, now, in one moment of seeing and being. (The German word Behälter, meaning a vessel, also evokes the English word beholder - to see and contain all things in a single moment or glance).

       Our conversations roved near and far over the history of art, literature and philosophy, but always came back to one central theme - the Sacred. Fuchs knew the Bible inside and out, and could - much to my surprise - quote long passages of the King James version in English.

       On one particular evening, a group of us had gone out to dinner at Brasserie Quai des Artistes in Monaco (without a word he’d again picked up the check, amounting to thousands of francs). Returning home to Castel Caramel, Fuchs was suddenly roused back to wakefulness after a brief nap in the passenger seat.

       As we all sat in the car in the driveway, watching the crescent moon rise over the rocky crags of the Côte d’Azur, he suddenly began recounting the history of the Hebrew people, from Abraham and Isaac, to Jacob and Esau in Rebecca’s womb, to Jacob’s twelve tribes and their enslavement in Egypt. He told the story so effectively and movingly that it seemed to be unfolding here and now, in the eternal present. Indeed, when our guest, Janine, posed a historical question, he cautioned her, reminding her that the truths of eternal myth lie beyond and above history.

       Brasserie Quai des Artistes, that excellent restaurant just below Fuchs’ studio in Monaco, became the backdrop to many a conversation between he and I. One time we turned to the subject of masters, apprentices and artistic lineages.

       He saw himself as the living heir of two masters - Salvador Dalí and Albert Paris Güttersloh. Having apprenticed to them, he now took his role of ‘master‘ seriously, warning me, “If you want to be liberated from the constraints of tradition and authority, then you can be like those art students who go to art school and do what they want for four years, and leave having learned nothing. Or,” he said, peering over his glasses, “you can submit yourself to a greater tradition of learning - and do what you're told!”

       He went on to describe how tradition is only passed on when one learns from his master, who has himself learned from his master, and so on - a chain going back in time, unbroken.

III. "Where's the Tea?"

       While many of our conversations probed the frontier between the knowable and the unknown, other times they seemed entirely nonsensical. Ernst the man had a rare talent for making us laugh, and often in the most unexpected way. For a period of about two weeks, he spent every evening after dinner engaging in a Blödsinn monologue - a nonsensical verbal journey delivered non-stop, stream-of-consciousness style (in German, and often in Viennese dialect) about any- and every- thing.

       The one I remember most clearly was about die Gelbe Gefahr (the Yellow Peril) - a childhood recollection of panic and fear, spread to all Austrian children, of a possible Chinese invasion. Young Ernst spent nights hiding under his covers, fearing that these strange creatures would burst into his room and drag him away (soon afterward - as Fate would have it - his father fled to Shanghai, to avoid persecution under National Socialism).

       Another time he recalled staring into the eyes of a gorilla, and the intense empathy he experienced... Stranger still was his recollection of one evening in Paris, in a dark room which he shared with a prostitute (he was her ‘protector’ it seems, during his starving years in Paris) when Ernst suddenly started reciting 14th century French poetry (with all its peculiar declensions intact). On the wall, they could see the events he was narrating, of a battle with lances, crossbows and flaming arrows - until the firemen walked in. At that moment, they realized the entire building was on fire...

       Castel Caramel was a large villa perched on the craggy summit of an Alpine foot-hill, about ten kilometers up road from the French Côte d’Azur. One entered through the top floor, with its many bedrooms and bathrooms, then came to a mezzanine overlooking the large studio area. Descending the stairs, there was a kitchen, tall bay windows and spacious balcony overlooking the ever-green hills.

       Josef was a large Hungarian man who kept house and cooked for us. He could speak only broken English, which led to many comical misunderstandings. One day Florence and I heard the same story twice - told first by Ernst imitating Josef, and then by Josef imitating Ernst. A pastiche of the dialogue went something like:

Ernst: Josef! Bring me some tea!

Josef: Yes, Professor Fuchs! I... uh... bring tea!

- Then Josef, according to Ernst, appeared with a kitchen towel draped over his arm, like a waiter. He ceremoniously presented the cup.

- Ernst, according to Josef, took out his loupe (a quizzing glass that he always kept in his pocket) and peered into the cup, which was empty.

Ernst: But, Josef - WHERE is the tea??

- Then Josef, according to Ernst, started bouncing from foot to foot, pointing in the direction of the kitchen.

Josef: Ummm, err... the tea, Professor Fuchs, is in the kitchen!

Ernst: But why, Josef, isn’t the tea IN MY CUP?

- Josef stared at Ernst, helpless. Without a word, he took the cup and disappeared, back to the kitchen.

       In fact, Josef did disappear one day, never to return. Working as Fuchs' assistant was never easy. One time I was painting a geometric pattern and dared to contradict him on its method of construction. "How do you ever expect to learn anything from me if you won't listen?" he thundered. Another day, another task - this time at the studio in Monaco. I was trying to lay down some silver leaf and - I admit it - screwed up royally. Ernst looked at what I was doing - then looked at me... Shrugging his shoulders, he laughed, then walked away. A lot could depend on his mood that day...

IV.  "Either the Cat goes, or You go!"

       But, for most of the time I spent with Ernst Fuchs, we both had brushes in our hands. We spent at least ten hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks on end - painting, painting, painting.

       Florence and I would arrive each morning at 10 o’clock (praying that our car wouldn’t get stuck behind the bus on the single-lane winding road that lead to Castel Caramel - or else our cell phones would start ringing with an angry Fuchs on the other end) and Ernst would explain over breakfast my tasks for that day. He always had things worked out in advance (though spontaneity and chaos would inevitably intervene). On certain rare occasions, he’d actually show me what to do. But, more often than not, he trusted me to figure things out for myself.

       I learned by watching and doing. He didn’t mind if I spent long moments watching him paint, because the transmission of technique happens that way - wordlessly, in the painting itself. One evening, for example, he told me he was leaving for Vienna, and wanted me to paint over a whole landscape in fresh colours. I spent a lot of long hours (alone in the studio in Monaco) applying what I’d learned about polychromy and spectral analysis.

       Upon his return he stared at what I’d done - and didn’t say a word. Instead, he picked up his brush and started painting, laying down translucent whites and glazing them over with transparent colours - creating new hues in interaction with my own. “Every painting,” he said, “is a dialogue between artists across time.” This dialogue, I learned, happens at the pictorial level every time an artist picks up a brush. (Incidentally, I never saw that painting again, but in a fit of inspiration, Fuchs told me to write down its title: Die Geburt des Phantastisches Impressionismus im Glashaus des Auges - The Birth of Fantastic Impressionism in the Glasshouse of the Eye).

       My tasks were many and varied, painting everything from frames to figures to portraits. For the better part of 2001, I worked on The Triumph of the Unicorn, the large Paradiso painting, and especially on Chronos - seeing that painting evolve from its imprimatura stage to near completion. Ernst complimented me on my strong feeling for colour (such compliments, I must add, were very rare...) and soon gave me more demanding tasks. For example, before a portrait session with a German prince in Monaco, he simply said, “Lay out ten or twelve colours that I can work from.” Or, “Warm up the colours in this painting with a glaze.” He wouldn’t explain which colours, but simply trust that I was seeing the painting the same way he did.

       Each day I learned something new about painting’s many methods and techniques. But - more importantly for me - I was also learning how to see. This was, without a doubt, the most extra-ordinary aspect of apprenticing with a master. Gradually, my vision expanded in such a way that the painting became a world unto itself - three-dimensional, transparent and fully alive, with a glowing ‘colour space’ (Fuchs’ word) where all the hues interacted and fused. At times, I didn’t know where to put my brush - I didn’t know where the surface of the canvas ended, and the visionary world began... 

       Although this may sound extra-ordinary, so much happened ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ in der Fuchswelt (the name we gave for the craziness and chaos surrounding us) that we soon stopped questioning it. At least I did... though my wife and black cat kept urging us to return to Paris (and to sanity). Fuchs and my black cat did not get along very well - a bad sign. “Either the cat goes, or you go!” he screamed, shortly after our arrival. The cat stayed, but we found an apartment in the coastal town of Menton, rather than sleeping above the studio at Castel Caramel - a wise move, until the ceiling of our apartment caved in (my cat was saved by a sturdy table) and we had to re-locate to Fuchs’ apartment (unoccupied) in Monaco. He had a small place on Le Rocher - the ‘rock’ where the Grimaldi Palace is located, among narrow lanes, exotic gardens and precipitous rock faces. 

       Living in Monaco for a few months was actually quite pleasant. “Disneyland run by the Nazis” I called it - a playground for the rich, scrutinized by surveillance cameras and police on every corner. Each night, my wife or I would take our cat for a walk (he walked on a leash) through the darkened lanes of that abandoned Mediaeval city (Monaco is a ghost town in winter), scrutinized by security cameras that followed us as we passed. Every couple of weeks the police would stop us for a thorough security-check (even asking me for my mother’s maiden name). When asked for my profession, I calmly replied, “Artiste peintre.”

Painted with the Left Hand

V.  With a Trembling Hand

Abraham from The Apocalypse Chapel - with spectral blue shadows

       That moment brought me back to the first evening we’d met - invited by Fuchs to work at the chapel, at the urging of Amanda Sage and Andrew Gonzalez. One warm summer evening in the year 2000, after a 20-hour train ride from Paris, I arrived in Klagenfurt. When I entered the chapel, Ernst was standing on a ladder, painting that exact same face of Abraham. He greeted me and invited me to stand opposite him on the ladder. For the next two hours, I watched him perform some miracles of painting, while he recounted in detail the tragic history of the Jewish side of his family.

       Later that evening he asked to see some samples of my work. Since I had the original painting of Christ Alchemist with me, I showed it to him. Ernst Fuchs took one look at that painting and announced that I should come work with him. We exchanged gazes and I knew at that moment that something utterly profound and unspoken had passed between us.

       For that reason, it was quite a shock to find myself in that same chapel, eight years later, watching as Ernst struggled with a trembling hand to paint blue shadows on the same face which he’d rendered so effortlessly during our first meeting. Later that night, an accident occurred, a fall, which seriously damaged his right arm even more. We all left Klagenfurt with long faces and heavy hearts.

       One year later, in 2009, I entered the studio in Monaco and found Ernst quite happy and in high spirits. His right hand was still bandaged, but he’d found a new way to paint. On the easel was a portrait of Christ, and in the lower portion, a hand appeared with a paintbrush. Ernst, it turns out, had rendered the entire painting with his left hand...

       Many years earlier he’d remarked to me how much he admired Beethoven for composing while deaf. He cited the example of Rembrandt, who still painted though colour blind (at least that was Dali’s theory, as told to Fuchs), and he spoke fondly of Rubens, who continued painting though paralyzed by rheumatism and arthritis.

       Indeed, Ernst told me that his Christian name, like Rubens, was Peter Paul. So I wasn’t surprised to see that he, like Rubens, wore white gloves throughout his final years. He admired the courage of these artists, and strove to continue painting, no matter how much his health held him back.

       After a year of intense, non-stop activity, Florence and I returned to our home in Paris. We parted with Fuchs on good terms, and I enjoyed meeting him again whenever our paths would cross. In the summer of 2008, I joined some of my seminar students in Klagenfurt, to work with them in the Apocalypse Chapel.

       At once, it was evident that something was wrong with his right hand. Every time Ernst lifted a brush, his hand shook uncontrollably. Still, he joined us in the chapel, gave directions, and occasionally painted as best he could. I still have a vivid recollection of him adding spectral blue shadows to the face of Abraham - and his hand shaking so badly that he could only accomplish a jittery line. Nevertheless, he persisted until the job was finished.

Below the Ernst Fuchs Museum ~ Discussing Gustave Moreau

VI.  The Silver Vessel

       During the Christmas break, I undertook a deep, meditative journey into myself, reviewing diverse moments from my past. And in a flash, a single moment arose, reminding me of my duty and attachment to this man.

       One evening in 2011, during the summer seminar in Italy, Hannes and San Yee Steinbacher had invited Amanda Sage, Andrew Gonzalez and myself to dinner at their beautiful home, which was located just below Castel Caramel. Upon arrival, we learned that Ernst Fuchs was in the villa, so we all gathered to visit him.

       Even now, my vision of that moment remains entirely clear - rounding the corner and seeing him on the terrace, just outside the studio. He was standing at a table and working on a watercolour. It was dusk, and there was a clear view across the low Alps to the Mediterranean. Wearing a white straw hat, an apron and a blue-striped shirt, he was gently spraying, in a quiet, meditative way, drops of watercolour onto a paper to render a yellow vase brimming with wild flowers.

       The moment struck me as so beautiful and perfect that I had to turn away in tears. What a magnificent way to end one’s life, I thought to myself. I personally couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

       As I write these words, I know in truth that the last time Ernst and I met - alone in the basement of the Fuchs Museum - he was barely lucid and gently drifted off to sleep. Perhaps that will be my last true memory of him.

       But the moment that remains strongest in my memory is that evening in 2011, as the elderly artist stood on the terrace outside his studio, and stared into the setting sun while rendering flowers with all the gifts, power and playfulness of an eternal child. 

L. Caruana - Vienna 2014

       After co-founding The Vienna Academy of Visionary Art, I found myself living once more in a city which had been so formative to my development as an artist. Since Ernst Fuchs’ Studio was in the same building, we saw each other often. He’d regained sufficient use of his right hand, and was able to draw and paint again quite gracefully. But, as his health declined, he came less often to the Palais Palffy and, eventually, his studio was closed. Instead, I visited him at the Fuchs Museum in Hütteldorf.

       In the Fall of 2014, his health significantly declined and Ernst spent several weeks in the Kaiser Franz Josef Spital, where I visited him as often as I could. At times, he was fairly confused, and had conceived an ornate plan where I was supposed to seek out “ein silberer Gefäß” (a silver vessel), similar to one in a Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller painting, and render it into his own painting of The Last Supper. For weeks he fussed about this obsession.

       Despite his weakened condition, he also displayed moments of great clarity. One evening as he lay on his hospital bed, I found a copy of his Feuerfuchs book and went through it with him. On that particular evening, I’d brought Daniel Mirante and Autumn Skye Morrison with me. Coming to his beautiful watercolour of Lohengrin, I asked him why he had painted it.

       Ernst stared at it intensely, then closed his eyes to better remember the moment. Suddenly, in a high voice, his throat parched, he said to me passionately in German, “It was the Kristallnacht... They threw out the Torah scrolls and burned down everything... And I said to them all, ‘My God, my God, what have you done? Forgive them - they don’t know what they’re doing...”  It was a very powerful moment.

       As the Fall of 2014 darkened to Winter, I continued to visit Ernst Fuchs, now in the basement of the Fuchs Museum (where they’d arranged a twenty-four hour care facility for him). But, I started to experience intense bouts of melancholy. Watching the decline of his powers affected me profoundly. Despite myself, I started grasping for a new hold on life - craving youth, love,  childhood, creativity and freedom.