PETER SCHERMULY PICTOR
by Martin Mosebach Translated from the German by Tobe Levin
In the middle of this century, Peter Schermuly began to paint. Germany had only just survived the catastrophe of the Second World War, and it was anything but certain that the state so crushed militarily and morally would ever recover again. Academies and museums, collections and schools were literally in ruins; the wide searching gaze of a young artist could find hardly a shaded corner in this desert in which he might have continued his activities as an artist unharmed by the political earthquake; there was no visible thread to be picked up. Hitler's state had condemned abstract painting and expressionism as symptomatic of the republican decade, believing to set a new direction for politics and art; in fact, they were only following the world-wide and inexplicable uniform adaptation, whether in socialist, fascist or Bolshevist states, to the changing taste of the times. By the close of the nineteen twenties, the era of the original revolt against the academy, with its experiments going so far as to destroy the picture, appeared to have run its course. Instead, numerous defenders of modernism returned to painting; a revolutionary school arose, of Bolshevik and folkloristic stamp; surrealism reformulated as a new kind of classicism and, with names like Bonnard, Derain, and Balthus, a new chapter of French classical painting began.
Yet all of this seemed too close to the horror so recently experienced. As a result, the democratic restoration, drawing on the tradition of Weimar, clung to an understanding of art as it had been conceived and already labeled as democratic by the Hitler state.
The eighteen-year-old Peter Schermuly found himself in Wiesbaden in one of the centres of this restorative movement. The patriarchal Otto Ritschl who, during the "Third Reich", had continued to work in seclusion, was now one of the most important representatives of a rejuvenated abstract painting. Ritschl's extraordinary intelligence, his uncompromising dogmatism and his close connections with the key figures of the modernist tradition fascinated the young painter. Ritschl's studio was a focus of postwar cultural discussions and must have seemed to the youthful Schermuly like a lighthouse in the dark. Here he discovered how the opaque and complex field of twentieth century art was really laid out; here opened a perspective on the struggles which had accompanied the modern movement's development since its beginnings. Granted, Ritschl had certainly taken a stance in these struggles; unconditional two-dimensionality was as much an axiom of his teaching as absolute objectlessness. Ritschl's painting moved mainly among three, at the most four, sharply defined colour values and forms of a clear silhouette: the constantly asymmetrical ordering of these bodies appeared, however, to obey the laws of an inner, invisible balance; Ritschl had adopted Asiatic forms of meditation; his artistic goal was a harmonious relationship of masses. Schermuly became Ritschl's pupil; his first "compositions", as abstract artists liked to call them, were from the start more hesitant and disparate in their formal construction. Schermuly joined the monochromatic splinters of colour together into a fixed intarsia, pressurising them into stone formations but, like his teacher, painstakingly avoiding any painterly handling of the colour surface which might produce the sensation of space. The association with Ritschl appeared fruitful and invigorating to Schermuly during this period; he believed he had entered upon the only path to painting which the times held open for him.
Ritschl's art was not, however, the only influence to which the searching painter opened himself. Despite the numerous postwar conditions that limited and restrained the artist's development there was one particular piece of good luck which had a dramatic effect on Schermuly's destiny: the contents of the Berlin Museums, today in Dahlem, had been transported to Wiesbaden where they were exhibited in the museum, at the time known as the "collecting point".
Schermuly valued the intensive study of Poussin and the Venetian school as contributing as much to his viewpoint as a painter as the hours spent in Ritschl's studio. In front of the Berlin paintings, Titian's organ player for example, he was able for the first time to formulate the feeling of a need which Ritschl's work could not satisfy: it was an imbalance between Ritschl's intellectual systematization and Schermuly's sensual perception. Schermuly could not but agree with Ritschl concerning the older man's thesis about the future of painting, but he felt increasingly ill at ease when he thought of the material realisation of these on canvas. He was convinced of the need for total abstraction from any and all literary subjects, given that the recent era had worn out all the material with which painting had been concerned since its invention. But was it actually possible to think of abstraction divorced from any idea of corporeality, as Ritschl would have it? Were not all colours, even the purest, already imbued, through the sensual experience of the viewer, with a particular taste, a particular odour, a particular weight and a given consistency, which the artist had necessarily to take in consideration? Dark colours seemed heavier than light ones, a lemon yellow appeared suddenly to arch beyond the canvas if a night blue was set next to it. Schermuly experienced how the laying out of monochromatic colour fields in his compositions suggested a sense of space and mass, and perceived that it was the colour itself, the relationships between colours, that allowed a picture of space and form to emerge. And yet the desire for a monochromatic surface could not be satisfied through the media of oil painting. An enamel spray gun, a printing press or a photographic transparency could produce a monochromatic result, but with a brush this same effect could not be achieved. The canvas itself, with its coarse or fine weave, already made up a relief which sprinkled any colour with tiny points of light and shadow. The brush stroke gave each colour a structure, making its materiality appear full and thick, or thin and transparent. Above all, Schermuly found it impossible to deny, in the face of his obsessive Observation, that "pure colour" was to be found neither in nature nor in painting. Colour was a characteristic of bodies which the dispassionate viewer must of necessity call into association. Mephistopheles expressed himself in a similar fashion on the subject of light: "It cloaks bodies, bodies beautify it, a body stops it in its path, thus I hope it won't last long, and with the bodies it will be destroyed." What does that mean for painting? Does it mean that with the disappearance of forms, colour disappears as well-does it mean that abstract painting announces the end of all painting whatsoever? Peter Schermuly would never have agreed to this conclusion. It is characteristic of this thoroughly trained and erudite artist that he would never see a need in his work to reduce problems to a simple "either-or" dichotomy before a cross-check in practical terms had been undertaken. It was not abstract "painting" that inhibited Schermuly's wishes but rather the apparatus of doctrine with which abstract painting had been burdened since its inception. The Venetians from the Berlin Museum proved to the young artist that colour was meant to portray the light and plasticity of form, that colour was in effect the means by which Information must be given about the non-coloured aspects of things. From then on, he was no longer prevented from including the material in the conception of his paintings. The first discovery along this route was, as already suggested, the materiality of colour itself. Schermuly tried to view colours no longer as merely the representatives of the hues and tonal values described by science, but to see them as substances, even using the consistency with which they came from the tube. He began to distinguish between body colour and transparent colour; he considered both the characteristics of pigments and the character of the substances carrying these pigments. A brush stroke or a spot of paint freshly mixed on the palette thus acquired, as an independent substance, a greater magic than the inner vision, which did not possess the fascination of a shocking corporeality such as that imparted by a piece of shiny, gloss paint on a virgin canvas. Schermuly began to succumb fully to this magic. He started to play with chunks of colour, letting them spread and Stretch; he let other colours flow into them and tried to discover the tonal sequences for the colour theme thus begun. The new paintings were no longer "compositions", nor were they made in the manner of composi-tion, by joining together ready-made elements, colour values or tones, to form a new whole. The tones that now appeared in Schermuly's work seemed to be exactly made for the worlds which were reflected on the new canvases. The pictures grew; they were no longer built. Schermuly's painting became an organic process and, correspondingly, the colours more earthy. The palette became ochry. Long before Schermuly painted the first figurative picture he had rediscovered for himself tonal painting. From now on Schermuly no longer forbade himself, when he observed the finished canvas, to discover in its structure objects, heads or landscapes. This, certainly, only after the painting had been fully developed according to the laws of colour which he had formulated for his working process. Naming was playful, comparable to the pastime of finding figures in the clouds, and demanding no commitment. During this time Schermuly became associated with Hans Arp whose poems showed an equally free manner of dealing with names and objects. In Arp's hands, words appeared to sprout new shoots and unexpected, previously unimagined blossoms developed which simultaneously altered and deepened their meaning. Words, however, never possess the same degree of abstraction which colour can attain under certain circumstances; absurd and even "concrete" poetry always Starts with an object and, we might say, enlarges the world of objects rather than reducing it. Schermuly found Hans Arp's absurd art extraordinarily liberating; under the influence of the logic of the absurd every sound and tone transformed itself into a new, previously unknown object, while every trusted word and every familiar form became a strange image. The abolition of the canonical boundary between abstract and figurative art was here in the making. Schermuly achieved a way of seeing in which everything became material, even the immaterial, the air and the most delicate growths of fantasy. His pictures during this period appear to tackle the theme of original matter, the stuff of which the world in all its unending variations would once be created. The Coming of form is announced, but in no way as a desired event, since Schermuly was clearly quite happy in his devotion to materiality as an independent phenomenon. In the Observation of these paintings it is clear that the painter would never become an enemy of abstraction, which had freed him from the subject. This freedom was something he knew how to enjoy ever since liberating himself from the phantom of pure, immaterial colour.
At the beginning of the sixties, in the collection of the art dealer Dina Vierny, who had been the model of the sculptor Aristide Maillol, Schermuly encountered the first pictures by the great naive, Andre Bauchant. Here he found a figuration which, in the middle of the twentieth Century, seemed to need no justifi-
cation, first of all because the painter apparently had not been aware of the intellectual necessity which had founded modern-ism. His obliviousness to this unheard of theoretical deficit was matched, however, by an evident pleasure in invention. In the construction of inner images through the medium of paint, Schermuly discovered that, just like himself, this naive had apparently become infatuated with the corporeality not only of objects but also of colour. Granted, Bauchant was equally ignorant of the finesses of colourism and the laws of tonal painting as of the theorems of the artistic revolution of the twentieth Century. Bauchant did not draw in the academic sense of the word, but his pictures were "painted"; that is, with impasto of colour and order had been built up which could be understood not only in terms of the represented objects behind the picture, but experienced sensuously as imaginary sculpture. Baudelaire, too, had already drawn attention to the triumph, as far as sculptural strength was concerned, of a painted wooden horse from a child's carousel over late classical-academic marble statuary. Naiveté is another word for freedom, a freedom which had allowed Bauchant to paint what he liked without reference to his historical Situation, but his fundamental taste in art had helped him to take advantage of the proffered freedom. These pictures represented for Schermuly a temptation never experienced before: up to this time he had limited himself to discovering appearances of the figurative as arbitrary demonic births in his paintings, as if he were an alchemist who had created the preconditions for an artificial life and then stood in amazement in front of the first independent move-ments in the glass tubes. Here, suddenly, was a renewed possi-bility of taking the world of already existing objects, including even the human face, and drawing them into one's own world of colour. Of course, the paradise of the naive was closed to Schermuly. Bauchant's Stimulus could only be indirectly taken up. The use of innocent narration, typical for Bauchant's pictorial world, would have remained closed to him. Even in those cases where he thought his view of the world and of art to have freed itself from any theoretical fog, he was never interested in anecdote, history, arrangement, gesture or pictorial idea. In the determination of a point of view, however, lie the secret and the boundaries of an artist's development. Schermuly had learned to see in the school of rigid incorporeality, we might even say anticorporeality. His revolt against the rules embodied by his teacher Ritschl was directed towards a materiality, which to have ignored would have contradicted the experience of his senses, but which was as far removed as Ritschl himself from any concern with figurative form. Abysses separated Schermuly from the possibility of repeating any of the scenes which had enchanted him in Bauchant's work. Nevertheless, these Parisian years marked the beginnings of a figurative painting, without, however, Schermuly's having broken with his previous procedures, just as throughout his work there have been no abrupt transitions or changes of style. It is typical of Schermuly that he believed himself able to harmonize in his painting the most divergent of tendencies. The element of corporeality, already present in the abstract fantasies, was now stressed and, no longer
discovered as an after-thought, was allowed in from the beginning. The flower still lifes with their fantastic blossoms offered, not unlike the hooped skirts of the infanta of Velásquez, a pretext for pure painting, colour associations freed from any theme. In arranging his pictures Schermuly deliberately avoided both "good ideas" and "effects". Vase and bouquet, fruit and bowl filled the center of the picture as though in obedience to the aesthetic principles of a village photographer and as though there had not been, from Pompei to Matisse, a developed culture of composition in still-life painting. Schermuly called these centrally placed flowers and apples his "Buddhas". Their posture, this massive concentrated tranquillity, was more important to him than the Observation of nature or representation. True to the processes of their creation, their meditative growth, these pictures developed into monuments of successful contemplation. The world of colour which suggested forms was followed by a world of forms which suggested thoughts and situations. His painting, however, went through a significant improvement and refinement in these years. Schermuly discovered that consistently avoiding corporeality would only lead to a dead end in his painting. The spinning out of ever more subtle tonal sequences, which had become indispensable to him, needed the restraint of some clear System in order to avoid becoming for the viewer merely a pleasant game marked by a high degree of arbitrariness. Schermuly was right when he trusted to the infinite resources of his imagination and internal images but now he was to learn that this creative endurance nourished itself on a constant perception of the external world. The transformations through light and shadow of the colours of an object were of such subtle gradations that no fortuitously invented colour could hope to match them in variety and complexity. In the pictures of this epoch, one can clearly see the inner struggle in which Schermuly was engaged. His individual fantasy, the plenitude of inner images revolted against the servile role of the Student of nature. Painting "after nature" was still experienced as a kind of torture from which the painter recovered by retiring to an interior world. Still-life paintings and landscapes blaze in a dramatic, romantic or unreal light; Schermuly cites the ways of seeing of the great centuries of painting, he mirrors himself in the great painters, borrows their subjects, not in order merely to repeat them, but rather to use them to achieve an ever richer kind of painting. Yet he is at his most relaxed when, dropping his deliberate obligations to figuration, he returns to abstraction, to refresh himself on trusted territory. Of course, these returns are marked by his experience with substance and figuration, which Schermuly tries neither to dissemble nor to repress. He produces paintings in which figurative fragments are wittily mixed with "pure" painting. In these pictures, which Schermuly calls his "fantasies", we can most clearly discern the artist's particular mode of experiencing: reality and fiction stand on a level of equality, growing out of each other; not getting in each other's way but rather explaining each other. We might say that for Schermuly, these pictures represent the actual form of realism because they offer a truly appropriate equivalent of his own highly personal reality: the world of a dreamy child who is able to draw the shreds of reality which arrive in disorder at his eyes and ears into the limbo of colour and flowing forms which his spirit has not yet left, although he is already Standing with both feet firmly on the ground. Lightness in the sketch however does not mean lightness in the painting. Schermuly's pictures become heavy; his attention to the materiality of the colour increases. He allows himself no gaps in the composition, leaves nothing merely sketched orunformed. Schermuly avoids the inky, transparent colours which merely tint the canvas and do not create their own reality which allows us to forget the canvas. The consistency of his colours grows thick, buttery, creamy, and is almost always of a cold tone, never becoming hazy through the use of a warm light and having the qualities of stone, marble or granite. Again and again, pearls emerge from the half-formed pictures and anticipate the theme which will govern the works of the later years: the human flesh which like the pearl, has a solid surface and whose shimmer, like the pearl, suggests unchartable depths and transparency. It is the most enigmatic, and therefore the supreme subject of painting concerned with substance. Another motif of the later years is also presented here: Schermuly preserves in the increasing plasticity of his painting the airlessness of the years of abstract two-dimensionality. The air which surrounds forms with an atmosphere of tender gloom is not painted. The emerging sculpture arches into the space like a relief. The air is the same as that surrounding the viewer. The newly created object on the canvas is not placed in a theatrical atmosphere but launched objectively into the world of the viewer. Here, too, the absence of any sort of literary preparation in his themes shows the enduring stamp of his early abstract years. A sharp innovation in Schermuly's work is effected by the introduction of human subjects into his work, beginning in the early seventies. There had been earlier portraits, human heads, painted from modeis with the intention of producing a likeness, but in these attempts, the systematic study of nature was not central to the effort. As though he were now tired of producing fantasies, he begins to accept commissions for portraits, as if he were delegating the increasingly tiresome burden of choosing a theme and style. Otto Ritschl's interest in meditation has now led, many years after the direct influence, to a new relationship of painter and model. Schermuly understood the exacting and strict investigation of the model as a kind of erasure of his own will and the repression of any formal intentions. Central to such a study was necessarily the quality of skin of the model. Here he found a substance which the most liberated and boldest fantasy could not invent. Even if one was completely clear about the texture, colouring and specific character of the skin there was always something mysterious remaining which could not be fathomed but only recreated in a felicitous moment: the effect of life. The sap of life gave the material of human skin that particularity which distinguished it from all other subjects of painting, a quality which was visible but indescribable and presented a challenge to the painter which had not always been taken up successfully in the history of European painting. We might even say that the painting of the human skin was an "idée fixe" among the premodern European masters, a struggle which might be compared to the search for the philosopher's stone. The Pompeians possessed the secret, then later Raffael and the Venetians, Murillo and Velásquez, Vermeer and Watteau, David and Courbet - and last, perhaps, Renoir. Eighty years after this loosely linked chain was broken, Schermuly arrived by a quite different route at the same problem which would, by virtue of the endless difficulties involved, hold him captive to the end of his life. A phenomenon of the development of art over the centuries is illustrated in this individual case; the major questions remain the same while the direction from which they are approached is constantly changing. In Schermuly's portraits of people one can feel the effort of concentration of this once abstract painter who had gone in search of the nature of material. They are not psychological studies, not snapshots of momentary activities, they don't laugh, but neither do they frown. Often there is a reflection in the portraits of the exhaustion, the tense rigidity of the model after hours and weeks of sitting because Schermuly, who had assigned himself the task of painting only what he saw, would not dream of setting a flattering, representative pose if the model was unable to maintain it for as long as was necessary. The fruits of this obsessive procedure were seen in the great nudes, dedicated entirely to the theme of the human skin. Liegender Akt mit Schachbrett (Fig. 26) lives above all from a Suggestion of weight which, for Schermuly, is one of the main concerns in the representation of the body. He might have been a sculptor in bronze and blocks of marble. This weight is resting under the most delicate shades which light can draw on the surface of the skin and gives them both meaning and mystery. But in Grosser Rückenakt (Fig. 27), the skin blooms into life, vibrates, its shimmer and moisture suggesting a warmth generated by the blood pulsing underneath. Herein lies the message of these pictures, which have little to do with the bathers, nymphs, goddesses or courtesans of earlier European painting. These pictures have no particular meaning; they tell no stories, convey no atmosphere nor portray any erotic ideal. They are, as it were, the results of scientific investigation: by which means can the application of oil paint and brush succeed in calling forth the appearance of a more human, more vital skin? The studio becomes a laboratory where a painter experiments with people. Because it is a question of human beings, not of allegories or symbols, Schermuly appears to have turned away radically from any transcendent ideas. The radical sceptic now trusts only his eyes and paints so that he knows what he has seen, as Goethe says: "What I haven't drawn, I haven't seen." If the idiom were not already loaded with other allusions, we might be tempted, in the light of the nudes, to speak of Schermuly's "Materialism".
From the same period as the nudes and heads there is a series of still lifes which can be seen as a celebratory reconciliation between the principles of a concise materiality and the painter's liberated fantasy. Stone, vases, sea shells, bread, a taxidermist's duck, apples and pears cannot escape as quickly as the tired human model from the tireless, investigating eye. The bouquets wilt, of course, but that too brings advantages. They either oblige the painter to create them anew in his Imagination or they offer, as dried flowers, a special challenge to the painter. Many of the still lifes are placed on a block of wood, a prop from the grandparental kitchen. Something of the cutting block, the butcher's shop, something bloody, still clings to the old piece of furniture now supporting the basket of pears or a glass vase with flaws. Indeed these still lifes have nothing to do with those still lifes of the past, wont to represent a particular style of life or a baroque sermon on the nature of "vanity" in the form of still-life painting. Schermuly's still lifes are victims in an atavistic sense of the word. A shaman has ripped these objects out of their living context and in an offertory act prepared them for ritual destruction. The cult in which this happens is unknown; the only certainty is that the viewer of these pictures becomes a witness to the ritual. "I am already removed to the chair of blood; the blade that has been drawn toward mine is already jerking toward other necks", states a famous condemned man and so might speak objects in the full bloom of their colourful pomp before the gloomy, compressed backgrounds. Along one of the devious paths typical of our Century, Schermuly, who believes only in what he can touch, arrives at a kind of mystic-religious painting. No image of the deity is presented, but a picture of what, in the service of God, can be sacrificed from the world of matter. The painter of substance exiles the very objects which, in his consuming devotion, he has recognized and called by name, to the realm of the unformed and unnameable. The reduction to the flat and the monochrome, which should have conjured up an image of the immaterial ideal, led him instead to research the materiality of the painter's medium. Substance and the substantial painterly equivalents of substance had become the determining impulses of his work. Now, in possession of the secret of creation, able to create out of earth beings and human beings, there was nothing left for him but to offer up to that world beyond all substance the "son of his own hands".
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