FROM PATTERN TO SUBSTANCE

by Friedrich Piel Translated from the German by Martin Crellin

"It is not the question of form (either representational or abstract) which is the most important, but the question of content (spirit, inner harmony)"

Wassily Kandinsky, "Über die Formfrage", 1912

With historical hindsight, at an objective distance from the structure and the content of the avant-garde, modernist works acquire a new Status. "The great abstraction" which until very recently dominated the international scene and possessed normative power, has been well documented in terms of its concepts and achievements. Abstract art has established a firm position for itself in the museums and art markets of the world. The place of abstract art in the "musee imaginaire" is as indisputable as is its Status as a source of inspiration for current and future production. Its task — "the de-iconisation of the world" — has been achieved and its functions (initially of a socially relevant nature) have been lost in the increasing emphasis on absolutism and aesthetics. "The great abstraction" lives on not in its works, but rather in the terms evoked by these works.

Increasingly, works are emerging which both belong to and embrace "Modernism" but which serve "the great Realism". This "... great Realism," Kandinsky says, "is based on the desire to expunge the outwardly artistic from a picture and to embody the content by means of simple ("unartistic") reproduction of the simple, blunt object. By reducing the "artistic" to an absolute minimum, the "soul" of the object is given füll expression because the superficial, sweet-tasting beauty is no longer in a position to distract."

Peter Schermuly's work is dominated by this polarisation of great abstraction and of great realism. It was this polarisation which determined his development, which revolves continuously around one problem: applying the instruments of Modernism to the re-establishment of the painting as a picture. This background makes it possible to understand the routes and diversions which this painter took, and had to take, over the last 40 years.

In many of the paintings produced after 1979, the aim becomes tangible: Works where the outwardly artistic is reduced to a minimum and which express the soul of objects with a force through which the material work of painting vanishes behind its pictorial power.

The artists associated with the Ritschl studio initially concentrated their efforts on experimenting with and adopting patterns which reflected the concept and theory of the "sacred surface": Configurations of a non-figurative type which no longer "portrayed"; patterns of composition aimed at creating integral Organisation of the picture surface and which sensitised the viewer without provoking him into flights of the imagination. In the field of traditional panel painting, these patterns represented the aesthetic and organising side of a "dual structure". Because the projective form has a double function. On the one hand, it enables us to recognize an object from a two-dimensional form (an ellipse can be recognized as a "table top"). On the other hand, the projective form introduces the two-dimensional manifestation as a planimetric element of the picture pattern — or of the integrally organised surface. The pictorial organisation of the two-dimensional surface creates patterns in the form of linear configurations. Our eyes shape these linear con-figurations to create three-dimensional ordered objects, Contents and scenes.

The paintings which were born of this dual structure are legion: From Giotto to Goya, artists wished to create a picture in which the materiality of the painting gave way to the phenomenon. Paintings prior to Modernism are characterised by the referral of the portrayed to a literary predefined repertoire. This repertoire made the meaning of the world of pictures understandable but the repertoire itself was subject to interpretation. These repertoires comprised the Bible and legends, myths and sagas, as well as the tales from profane history.

As a direct consequence of the aesthetic means used, the themes depicted pictorially transcended this codified discourse between picture and viewer and were raised to the Status of phenomena. It was this phenomenon which gave substance, modernity and currency to the theme of the picture, which was previously predisposed to discourse.

From the late 14th Century until the late 18th Century, these Standard repertoires were constantly expanded and gradually lost their relevance: increasingly, paintings were produced which only reflected the artist. The dream world of Fuseli and the barren nature of Friedrich are examples of a trend in which not only pictorial fantasy, but also the fantasy of the artist, related purely to structure and to his artistic means, aimed to replace the previously accepted repertoires. With the onset of Impressionism, the object depicted in the picture became arbitrary. Kandinsky's "great abstraction" removed the object as the content of the work and replaced it by the structure. In "concrete art", epitomised by "art pour l'art", significans and significandum are identical.

In this way, the dual structure on which European painting since Giotto had been founded ceased to be in force. However, the term "content" was now determined by the viewer. Against this background, we are able to understand Kandinsky's words: "If, within a picture, a line is liberated from the aim of designating an object and itself becomes an object, then the inner harmony takes on its full power and is not diluted by any additional minor roles."

As a result, a painting loses its reference character; the painting itself becomes the significandum, becomes the object. Although it is possible to suggest that the European avant-garde wished to place their talents at the Service of the new picture, the newly created content required new media. However, the works of "abstract art" were not regarded by the following generation as "media for media's sake". They were no longer regarded as elements within a process, within a larger system, but as something autonomous. This reduction and emphasis on the absolute produced works (above all in the period between 1948 and 1960) that were purely patterns which served to sensitise the viewer but which had no set of reference-character signs or pictorial power. The only reference to be detected was to the artist or to a trend - and then only in nuances. However, pattern did not dominate everywhere.

In a different spiritual region of European culture, the dual structure survived beyond 1910, in Surrealism and in Pittura Metafisica for example, the entire apparatus of European painting played a constitutive role but did not become the theme itself. The pictorial space was subjected to a similar convulsion as had affected the world of objects depicted in the picture. This world of objects was composed of elements and relations drawn from the conscious and subconscious, from the chimerical realms of dreams and fears. However, these were always linked to the pictorial surface in a way which meant that whatever was depicted in the picture was maintained at the required distance to the viewer. The patterns presented in the works of Dali and Tanguy, Matta and de Chirico conform to the methodological requirements of "projective form".

This projective form has a twofold function: It gives the viewer the opportunity to translate a planimetric compositional dement into a portrayed object. But it also represents an element within the pictorial pattern at the picture level, determining the relativity of pictorial surface, pictorial space and pictorial limits.

This categorical structure explains the laws of surface and the legitimacy of projective form. This structure provides the foundation in which the autonomy of the artistic is embedded. The projective form does not simply determine the way of communicating that which appears "as the picture". This form also dictates colour values and colour effects. The projective form contains the key to the relativity of form, space and meaning, in the same way as the entire spectrum of characteristics which qualifies the portrayed object, the portrayed matter, in a way which gives the pictorial power of the painting its interpretative element.

The tasks of the future will include the establishment of a "topic of pictorial form". The objective is not only to find the location of the categories of the pictorial in an actual work, but also the location which the work itself has with regard to its recipient. Form as a line and as a reference-character element, as a projective form and as a pattern, together produce a unique entity which determines the substance of a work and its pictorial power and also the relativity of pictorial space and real space, of imagined spatial phenomenon and the actual space around the viewer.

What remains of that which we call the work, that which is present and tangible as a perceptible phenomenon in the "picture"? Which features of the picture are comprehensible within the framework of the viewer-picture discourse and which remain within the realm of pure presence? What is the aim behind maintaining or blurring the limits of the aesthetic? Are they maintained or destroyed? How are real space and pictorial space interwoven? What are the pictorial requisites and which key requisites determine the substance of the world of objects depicted?

These are all questions which are very much provoked by Peter Schermuly's "Streubilder" - scatter pictures - but which can only be partially answered. Because the terrorism of rules which the world of art has always instigated is now faced by a new intention.

The surface is no longer at picture level; the surface breaks open to expose an abyss which cannot be defined in terms of space, location or objectiveness. It is the revelation of the void, a revelation for which the grey, quality-destroying canvas is made to serve. The revelation of nothingness on a canvas on which atomised nature conglomerates with the fragments of civilization: Impossible to localise, convulsive, ignoring the laws of perspective in a way which mixes proximity with distance. Heterogeneous elements are thrown together in a way redolent of a night-mare - without centre, without spatial, pictorial, compositional vanishing point or axis.

In the convulsion of mummified reference-character pictorial signs, the viewer has nothing he can hold on to. "Streubilder" are in this sense "fall pictures". They present a caricature of the culture of recycled pictorial refuse, refuse which has been thrown up by the iconogrammes taken from the picture made of nature, a nature which lost its identity through this very act of depiction in pictures, a depiction in which the cycle of nature is amputated.

In the "Streubilder" it is the objects which have become name-less and which have lost their place. In the Bildnis E. S. Über das Geistige in der Kunst, a picture in which the laws of projective form are only observed in the gable of the house and where other picture elements have been tipped into the two-dimensional picture level, there is evidence of quasi-aphasia. Where objects lose their location within space, they can no longer be designated.

Against this background it is necessary to reassess the "Streubilder". Bizarre? Of course, because they do not follow any recognisable syntax. For this reason absurd? No, because they paint a picture of senselessness.

The elements of these "Streubilder" represent items in the vocabulary of a very personal dictionary waiting to be amalga-mated to form new pictures by means of a new syntax. Individual items of vocabulary which are lying in wait for the opportunity to join together to form new pictorial sentences. The forms of these pictures are abrupt. And the abruptness of the line which melts within the pattern of the surface colours becomes a painful symbol of the decay of the world. The troika of form, space and meaning has no place in these pictorial fields. The latitude of "Lebensraum", of living space, is reduced to a single point where existence appears absurd and futile. The pictorial and iconic repertoires are fused together in the mode of the bizarre.

This bizarre realm reduces the "ordo" to the pure coincidence of its ontic constituents. In these paintings, exemplified by Pandämonium, 1963/79 (Fig. 17), Streubild mit Tomatenapfel, 1982 (Fig. 18), or Gnom mit blauem Flügel 1983/87 (Fig. 21), Peter Schermuly turns against any slick smoothness such as can be observed in the calligraphic verve of the "ecriture automatique" of the cold-welded Surrealism and in the practiced eruption of Tachism. It is the calligraphic verve which gives many an artist a certain satisfaction and which confirms to the public that "art" is based on "ability".

Because, despite the coincidence of the elements, the iconogrammes still possess an inner orentation which is aimed at a new combined whole, a whole which is different from that which emerges from conventional methods and which refuses to obey the laws of projective form and of "sacred" surface. The aim is the pictorial Constitution of a new way of depicting objects figuratively and therefore "portraying" but where the meaning of these objects does not lie in the "portrayal" as such but rather in the reconstruction of reality. For this reason, both the abstract and the bizarre paintings by Peter Schermuly display from the very beginning a power which lies in wait, a power which enables this reconstruction, a power which allows the objects portrayed not only to maintain their inner harmony, of which Kandinsky spoke, but which also exposes the phenomenal substantiality which exposes relation to the very existential being of the objects portrayed.

The consistency of the picture elements reveals the exploratory, ponderous technique with which Peter Schermuly embodies the conflict between the autonomy of art and, at the same time, its shaping by outside influences as a reservoir of aesthetic and iconic energies. He achieves this by transforming to the immanence of each individual painting those elements which transcend all his works, which draw upon art and culture, technology and civilization, upon the existential experience of here and now and upon the experience of dreams. Through all of his paintings, the work process, the mark of the brush, leaves its trace. Despite the intensity of symbolisation, which reveals the presence of the significandum as the objective of the portrayal, the significans retains its integral value. Due to the composition which refuses to follow the call of projective form, and due to the trace of the work process in the pictures, the significians does not drown in the imagining of dream-like illusions which feign a different world to the viewer. The perception of these works is determined by a curious process. We see objects, things and scenes and we perceive ourselves as analogues or complements thereto; and gradually these paintings become the opposite of our ego and of its confirmation. However, these works do not call upon us to move around and lose ourselves in imaginary worlds in order to satisfy the yearning to forget ourselves.

However, a trace of existential sorrow is not to be missed even well into the late Seventies - a feature which evokes a mood of loneliness within the viewer.

The dialectic of the directness of experience and reflection upon this experience at a distance which marks Peter Schermuly both as a person and as an artist enters into his work. The things portrayed in his paintings are themselves pictures of these things; and the patterns which we described as constituents of the painting remain in the form of Stigmata of the portrayed material world. In this way, it is not the object which is alienated but the means of its portrayal. Things are not simply removed from their day-to-day, simply ontic context and raised to a higher level, they are also released from the chains of the laws of art. In the interplay between modelling and surface-organising technique, between fine and rough, between painstaking precision and casual panache, between clear and muddy, it is impossible

to define the physiognomic character of the paintings with a simple formula. In each individual case, the character is a variable which depends on the picture's intention and which changes from painting to painting, from period to period. Nevertheless, we are able to establish a general principle for the artist's development.

In his early compositional work, it is the abstract, pictorial material as such which dominates. However, even here it is possible to note the specific orientation whereby the material itself pushes toward objectifying "things" even if they are not yet recognisable or definable.

The foundation for these paintings is neither geared to the depiction of objects in the sense of "pictorial space" nor to materiality, and it provides the basis for the presentation of con-figurations which are intended to present themselves as things. The purely artistic problem which shaped the development of the painter Peter Schermuly can be summed up in one sentence: Adaptation of the aesthetic material to expression and meaning. This explains the particular structure both of the "Streubilder" and of the strangely misaligned paintings of the Eighties. It is not Peter Schermuly's aim to portray something to the outside world, but to specify the portrayed object pictorially and to raise it to the level of the picture. In his early work, up until the Marmorfrüchte, 1967 (Fig. 59), we are able to recognize the gradually developing subtle use of artistic means for a purpose: Productive tapping of the substance of a long-since buried world of pictures in which outside nature is seen as something full of meaning, of value, which by being captured in the picture is turned into a reference-character sign of itself, a Symbol in which the organic blossoms, fruits and leaves seem petrified. By changing the State of aggregation, even modest elements of nature can be monumentalised:

The simple and transitory is transformed by his work and reference-character signs to the level of permanence. Peter Schermuly's work pursues, picture by picture, a determined desire for stylisation: The pictorial form is used to secure substance within the immanence of the painting and nature is used as the portrayed object. The painting process, as Kandinsky understood it, which centred and centres on simplification, is no longer visible in the end product. Sitzender Akt in Umbrabraun, painted in 1983 (Fig. 29), does however give us a clue to the principle which subordinates the verve of concepts in the painting process to stylisation.

This painting process distorts, Stretches and misaligns the regu-larity of the projective form in favour of the pictorial form. This regularity is modified in a way which gives the portrayed objects a character which refers neither to the object itself nor to the art. The painter's intention becomes tangible and all vocabulary items of the picture, all instruments of portrayal are made subordinate to an idea. Only through distortion does the pictorial idea gain force.

In the Kleiner Rosenstrauss, painted in 1984/86 (Fig. 78), this distortion is highly visible. In this picture, the false perspective of the shelves and easel is used as a means of cancelling the imagined depth of vision in the picture and of mummifying the portrayed objects on the material pictorial surface. This painting and other similar works are characterised by "naive" painting, the abstraction of the "artistic". And once again: The intention of this art is neither to make external reality visible nor to make external reality recognizable (two areas in which photography has proven to be suitable), but to prove the existential in external reality, to make us conscious of it and to interpret it. These are the key forces behind the currency of this form of painting, forces which turn the Illusionism of older styles into the subject of the painting itself by partially using its mechanisms but, at the same time, by withdrawing them from the pictorial whole. For this reason, this type of painting cannot be termed "Realistic" since it does not attempt to portray a picture of reality. It would be perhaps more suitable to describe it as "Metarealism". The artist takes up a position "meta" of both nature and art whereby objects are not portrayed as elements of outside nature. Instead fragments of external nature and works of art from the past are turned into the subjects in an artificial arrangement of still life and extracted from the fog of reproduction.

Antiker Frauenkopf (Fig. 52) can perhaps be taken as an example. This painting is based on a portrait of a mummy in late antiquity; however, it should not be regarded as a copy or replica but as the productive exploitation of a pictorial force which has long since faded in its substance and which gains a new identity in this painting. Outside the realm of technical reproduction, this excavated document of death is resurrected. Paintings such as the Marmorfrüchte remain testaments to the ironic presence of formalised materials. These paintings are portrayals, but the substance of the picture is not immanent within the mode of portrayal. These paintings call upon the viewer to provide the aesthetic in order to move from the immanence of the work to the transcendence of the picture, from the virtuality of the aesthetic energies to the currency of the presented. In order to gain its identity, the painting must be rescued by the viewer from the flood of indifference. The viewer recognizes in these pictures the class of the art to which they are committed rather than their substance. The leap to the current works, where the painting is designed to reflect a new kind of pictorial power, where the pattern is replaced by the substance, is represented by the "Streubilder", the scattered pictures, and the "Zerrbilder", the distorted pictures of the Sixties, whose intention and direction have already been described. Increasingly, these paintings take on a physiognomic substance created by the overcoming of pain. The existentially-founded drive to name, symbolise and banish the painful experience of individual loneliness determines the intentions behind works such as Kinder des Traums, 1963/79 Fig. 13), and Kind mit Schweinsmaske, 1966 (Fig. 6). The rules of the bizarre have been translated into the form of diagnosis. The painful experience of the existence of the ego within the structures of our world is made visible by the pictorial vocabulary of twin determination, alienation, contrived concoction of the heterogeneous; it is reflected in the artistic process during which, often in the course of several years work spent on the same painting, the light-footed "prima idea" is transferred into the often severe and heavy presence of objects, the moment is chained to the immovable form, which increasingly takes on the quality of the statuesque.

The work of 40 years not only pushes towards completion, monumentalisation and succinctness in the iconic/symbolic, but also in the artistic realm. In formal terms, the planimetric norm of the framing does not determine the limits of the "pictorial space", not in the "Streubilder", not in the still life painting of the Eighties and not in the portraits. Objects, the Suggestion of space, the grouping of things and people do not display a limit at the edge of the picture to the actual surroundings of the painting. In other words, composition in the classical sense is removed and the rules of colour composition, despite their mastery by the artist, become completely malleable. The artistic means are taken by Peter Schermuly and used to give currency to the pictorial power and to many the spiritual realm of the picture with the physical realm of the viewer to the point of congruence.

Examples of this idea include the Akt mit abgewandtem Kopf (Fig. 25) and Mit der grünen Maske (Fig. 3). In these pictures, the modelled objects and picture rudiments are veiled by their pictorial modelling and the substance is only revealed to the viewer if he allows himself to be embraced sensorially and men-tally by the enveiled world in which the object of the portrayal is cut off both from outside nature and from art, and which awaits revelation by the viewer who then recognizes himself within this world.

In the still life Zwei Ananas, 1982/84 (Fig. 66), this picture concept becomes quite clear. At first glance, the relationship between the chair and the fruit to the picture edge may seem displeasing. However, this is not the inability of the painter to compose a chair with fruit within the planimetrically standardised pictorial field and to set them within an artistic reality in accordance with analogy and conventional patterns of style. Instead, it is the desire to establish an unbreakable link between that which is portrayed figuratively and the physical presence of the viewer: The picture and the viewer are to be combined in a way which removes any barriers to the actual presence of the content.

After the "Streubilder", which featured the relative distance to the physical space of the viewer and which (in analogy to Capriccio) required discourse with the viewer to "bring order" come the paintings which we could describe as quasi-statuesque and which are characterised by a new vector, by a new direction of power which is added to the aesthetic energy of the work. It is not the iconogramme which creates the substance but the tertium quid of the twin picture of form and object which gives birth to the substance which eludes discourse. Whatever can be defined and singled out as an iconogramme (reference-character sign) is embedded in an aesthetic foundation from which the iconic draws its expression. The vocabulary used by Peter Schermuly would appear to be artificially-com-bined requisites. The very lifelike but apparently stuffed duck and the deliberately transitory-seeming fruits emerge from this ensemble as symbolic victims, where the visible object takes on the stigma of its transcendence.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the relation between picture object and picture space was refined to a point where the relationship between the work and the viewer resembled that of a mirror and the mirrored. The Kinder des Traums, 1963/79 (Fig. 13) recog-nize themselves in the distorting mirror; the Akt mit abgewandtem Kopf, 1967/78 (Fig. 25) does not wish to recognize herself in the mirror; Mit der grünen Maske, 1950/83 (Fig. 3) is a picture in which the rear side of the mirror becomes visible. In all cases, however, the viewer is present, viewing his own reflection in the picture, which mirrors his existence. The "enveiled" is almost the "enclosed"; the distance of the early works has almost disappeared completely in the infinite. The abstract and the bizarre seem to combine. The ironic dement seems to have withdrawn. The move from existential sorrow to composure and hope becomes visible. In the paintings which were created before 1979, the "figura", which from now on pushes towards greater succinctness, is latent. From 1979, the principle of alienation, which was visible in the concoction of the heterogeneous and in the twin determinations, is gradually dropped. However in 1988, Schermuly returns to a twin determination: Phantasie mit Ranunkeln, 1988 (Fig. 20). A semi-skinned bird's head is formed by blos-soms. However, his main paintings after 1980 are still-life paintings of fruit and flowers and large-format portraits of people. A typical feature of this new direction has already been de-scribed for the Kleiner Rosenstrauss (Fig. 78). However, there is another principle which is very clear in some paintings and which we regard as an irrationality within the dimensional relationship of the portrayed objects.

In Apfelstilleben, painted in 1982/83 (Fig. 68), the viewer is initially confused by the colossal chain in the foreground which appears to trivialise the central subject, the apples. This minimalisation of the central subject also makes use of other artistic means. The marbling of the wall, the scantily organised pattern of the cloth, the casual graining of the wood in a way which would seem to display carelessness in perspective. The objective of this aesthetic minimalisation of the key subject is to "empty" the pictorial space, to reduce the portrayed object and to remove the aesthetic barrier. Nature, doomed to certain death, is delegated to the signs of its permanence. The basic process and the basic intention of the artistic creation becomes visible: To bind the organic being to its signs, to transform it to the immanence of the painting, to record their participation in a transcendental realm and in this way to give them "worldliness".

The "Streubilder" can be described as "many objects looking for a single meaning"; the grotesque pictures can be summed up as "things without a vanishing point reflecting the ridiculousness of a world whose identity is questioned." The works created after 1979 up to the present day show Peter Schermuly's "figura" Walking the ground of reality. It is here that the initially scattered vocabularies gain a new syntax which finds expression in its most mature form in the large still life Hieratischer Tisch, 1988/89. However, this form must also be seen as the result of the artistic work which first took shape in 1981 in the Atelierstilleben mit Figur.

The majority of the depicted requisites of the studio are not shaped according to the conventional composition principles of panel painting.

Initially, we note an almost unpleasant irregularity in the dimensional relationship of picture field and picture frame. The fragmentation of the painting within the painting and the pictorial object, the large vase, which is cut off by the edge of the painting are "too large" for a photographic view or for a realistic order of the pictorial space. The armrest of the chair is distorted in its perspective - one of the spurs with which Schermuly kicks against the order of the picture surface and against the "artistic rules" - the chair reduces the model to the dimensions of a child or a doll. The contrast between the sketchy painting on the right-hand side of the picture and the precise style in the centre, the contrast again between the integral value and portrayed value of the colours are designed to give the painting the new dimensions of Peter Schermuly's work which gives both the aesthetic and the figurative means a consistency which became compressed during the course of his later works and which ad-dressed the painting as a whole.

For this new pictorial form, the Hieratischer Tisch, 1988/89 is the most recent example. However, the paintings Mürbes Bouquet mit grünen Blättern, 1987, Herbststrauss mit Muscheln auf Kelim, 1983 and the Heraldische Tulpen, 1983 clearly display this concept.

These pictures are based on the twin picture of form and object and it is one of the mysteries of the art that structure and meaning can no longer be separated from one another in the presence of the complete phenomenon of form and portrayed object. The fractures created in the "Streubilder" by the deliberate alienation, the call upon the viewer to perceive the painting as a work of art, the deliberate Stigmatisation of the surface by the traces of the brush, all these now begin to disappear. At the same time, the portrayed objects become more simple and more sublime.

The preference for variety and heterogeneity, the often apparently violent combination of different dimensions of bring is given up in favour of a requalification of the portrayed object which represents one side of the twin picture of form and object, and raises it to the Status of a symbol.

If it is possible to detect the ironic and sarcastic intention behind the "Streubilder" and the bizarre pictures, then it is also possible to detect the principle of "humilitas" for the works which have a "statuesque form".

The simple, peaceful, rounded reality which is subordinate to natural existence gains artistically the dignity which it has, to a large extent, lost in the thinking and practice of civilization. The barrier to a new artistic world is crossed, a world in which Schermuly meets with the great masters of the past. It is possible to formulate a theory on the intention behind the statuesque form: To make the comprehension of the essence of the natural world, which is largely hidden to 20th Century man, visible by artistic means and to explore it. The basis of the artistic work of Peter Schermuly is that particular spiritual energy which is described with the term "fantasia realis":

The ability to transform the content of experience in the realm of the transcendental to the immanence of the painting in a way which enables the painting to point the viewer back to the transcendental. This is the source of the sacramental character of these works: The viewer receives in a real way what is really present in the natural order of the world. These works are to be seen as epithets of being.

These paintings are not simply pictures of art or of the artist, but the media with which we can gain access to reality.