In early May, Jablonka took the opportunity of Gallery Weekend Berlin, a three-day marathon of openings, to unveil a group of large-scale paintings by Eric Fischl. Titled “Corrida Paintings” (2009), the series was inspired by photographs the artist took on visits to the southern Spanish village of Ronda, the birthplace of modern bullfighting. Like Goya, Picasso, Hemingway, Bacon and Bataille before him, the New York artist is fascinated by the Spanish blood sport, which for decades has caused animal rights activists to take to the barricades.

Showing different matadors, bulls and fights, the seven canvases capture the essence of the battle par excellence between man and beast. Corrida in Ronda No. 7 depicts five matadors in bright and elaborately decorated garb prancing around a dark, silhouetted bull. The matadors’ semicircular arrangement meets the curve of a shadow in the background, so that the animal is completely encircled. Although the bull may be lunging at its adversaries, its head is partially hidden, and the creature appears immobile and docile. With its crude and formless dark hide rendered in broad brushstrokes and flat colors, this bull already looks as lifeless as the one being decapitated in Corrida in Ronda No. 6, which hung on an adjacent wall.

The flamboyant figure of the matador is undoubtedly a seductive one for Fischl. His attraction to pattern is expressed in the accentuation of the costumes’ black stitching, which runs in wispy strokes along taut surfaces. Fischl effectively conveys how, despite his rigid formality, the matador must always strike a graceful pose. In stark contrast, the artist’s treatment of the bull, especially in Corrida in Ronda No. 4 and No. 2, is completely underdeveloped.

Fischl has painted animals before, particularly dogs, but center stage was usually reserved for the relations among human characters, who establish a certain ambiguous mood in each scene. In the “Corrida Paintings,” using simple narrative structures, Fischl for the first time depicts the confrontation between humans and animals just as atmospherically. Without compromising the spectacle’s existential intensity, he cracks the shell of the macho, triumphant matador to reveal the figure’s vulnerability within the highly charged encounter. The theatrical lighting shrouds him in a lugubrious mood. The drooping head of the matador in Corrida in Ronda No. 4, or the look on his face in Corrida in Ronda No. 6, highlights his resignation before the death of either himself or the bull. By investing the scene with this emotional charge, Fischl elicits in us a feeling of empathy, although we are never sure whether it is inspired by man or beast.