Hermann Fischer, Karl May and the Desert of Imagination

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It was Karl May’s pulp fiction that first prompted a boy growing up in Heilbronn, Germany, to long for the desert he’d never seen, and, eventually, to become a desert painter at age 70.

High Desert

Hermann Fischer, High Desert

For the German writer May (1842-1912)—as for many others–the desert represented freedom, adventure and beauty. May (pronounced “My”) captured this desert of the imagination in popular novels that continue to inspire Europeans to flock to the American West today.

Now a Palm Desert resident, Hermann Fischer was incubated with his love of open distance when he was still a child. But his craving for Western spaces was forgotten temporarily as he earned degrees in mechanical engineering and business, graduating to become a successful businessman in Chicago and Los Angeles. It was only when he retired (at a sprightly age 43) that Hermann finally made a trip to Death Valley. “I just liked the energy of the desert,” he says. “There is a certain energy here.”

Painting outdoors—as we all know–is one of the best ways to partake of this energy. So after relocating to Palm Desert ten years ago, Hermann painted his first plein air desert scene. In the years from 70 to 80 (his age today) he’s achieved a deep immersion in both the desert and its art.

“He’s a pretty tenacious guy,” says painter and teacher Mark Kerckhoff. “He sits for hours painting and won’t take a break.”

Palm Canyon

Palm Canyon

As a testament to his tenacity, Hermann has suffered not one but two strokes while plein air painting. Kerckhoff was with him—in Araby Wash in Palm Springs—when he had a stroke three years ago. The instructor heard Hermann yell and went to help, finding him scratched from the prickly smoke tree branches he grabbed as he was falling. Now that Hermann has recovered, the incident certainly qualifies him for special status in the Smoketree School.

I’d bumped into Hermann now and then when I dropped in on the friendly Desert Art Center classes. He’s not self-promoting (“If I’m good, I don’t need a publicity agent”). He was always the man working quietly in the back, not joining in the banter but painting with a confident intensity. I admired his work-in-progress and made a date to visit him at home.

The artist lives in a sprawling abode in a newer Palm Desert development. The surroundings were decidedly plush, but here came Hermann looking every inch the bohemian. He was barefoot, wearing suspenders and a gorgeously paint-splatted shirt and pants, his white hair mildly disheveled as if he’d been painting all night. His three dogs and a foster dog (his wife Eva, a nurse, cares for injured shelter pets) played in the yard.

Hermann and Eva Fischer

Hermann and Eva Fischer

As we walked around the house—dodging a few well-gummed tennis balls–there were Hermann’s paintings lining every wall. Even the garage was jammed with art. It wasn’t all traditional landscapes. Hermann ventures freely into abstract and portraits, tackling all forms of painting vigorously and joyously.

He told me he’d always loved art and even had a large collection—William Wendt, Franz Bischoff, German Impressionists–until three divorces forced him to scale down. After his early retirement he spent years doing what well-to-do retirees do: International travel, golf. But then one day he said: “Enough of that; I want to paint”. He signed up for a course in Anza with the Russian Impressionist Valentina Ratschenko Lamdin.

His very first effort was a display of flowers: Blumen Fuer Dietrich. Even for someone as confident as Hermann, there was a learning curve. He wasn’t too pleased with the initial results and he sanded over most of his canvases to repaint.

When he started painting, his wife Eva (he met her while hiking in a crater in Hawaii) asked: “What’s your goal?”

“I want to be in the Palm Springs Art Museum,” he said.

At the time, given his frustrating early efforts, the goal seemed a stretch. In 2013, though, Hermann won the Museum’s Preston Ormsby Memorial Award for his painting: The Kiss. He says he intentionally entered an abstract in the competition because the modern-leaning Palm Springs Museum never gives an award for landscape painting.

The Kiss

The Kiss

Now that the original goal is checked off, Eva asked him again recently: “What’s your goal now?”

“Sotheby’s, London.”

Another stretch? Not necessarily. Hermann is already selling his big abstracts in Germany. He moves easily from realistic to abstract. Picasso started as a realist painter, he points out, adding that he recently traveled to Barcelona to visit The Picasso Museum and its exhibit of landscapes.

Despite his experimentation with various styles, Hermann always returns to painting the open desert, sometimes standing outside on a dune for eight hours at a stretch. He goes again and again to Beaumont Pass, Snow Creek, Whitewater, Borrego and Joshua Tree. Sometimes he takes the road to Las Vegas and just pulls off on a side road and paints a place with no name.

Desert Moon

Desert Moon

As I was preparing to leave, Hermann was heading back to work. He doesn’t work from photos, only sketches, and he sets up his easel in the backyard, except in summer heat. He was refining a painting of mountains, aiming to “put air between” the viewer and the hills–still yearning for the pulp fiction desert distances of childhood.

For more of Hermann Fischer’s work, see: http://www.yessy.com/fischer/

You can find Fischer’s work, and that of other desert artists, at the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs. For good deals, look in the bin of unframed paintings. http://www.desertartcenter.org/

Whitewater Canyon

Whitewater Canyon


5 comments for “Hermann Fischer, Karl May and the Desert of Imagination

  1. The paintings put me out in vast open space, yet the colors bring me intimately into the landscape. Love the whimsical Kiss……..the colors are once again jumping out to catch me ………

  2. Since moving to the desert from the east coast, I’ve only recently been introduced to the world of Desert Art. Mr. Fischer’s work brings out the color and beauty that is the desert. I also enjoyed his abstract painting of the “The Kiss” good work…..

  3. Ms. Japenga’s wonderful article captured the mind and heart of an artist. It was interesting to learn more about one of my favorite artists, Hermann Fischer.

  4. I really like these pieces! The colors and shapes appeal to me. I’ve been on an abstract art kick lately, so “The Kiss” in particular struck me.

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