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  OBITUARY - PETER FISCHER: 1922 - 2000 

Peter 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", or Reichwork.

In 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.

By 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.

At 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 Mosaicists.

I first 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.

Peter 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".

Peter 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, 2000.

As 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.

In 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.

He 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.

I shall miss him very much, and so will the world of mosaic.

Paul Bentley


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