by Stephen McKenna

"The Real Thing" is the title of a short story by Henry James in which the narrator, a painter with ambitions to great portraiture, discovers in his subsidiary work as an illustrator that the best models for his purpose of representing British ladies and gentle-men are not two exemplary members of that class, but a Cockney girl and an itinerant Italian. The painter observes in himself "an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation".

The central concern of painting has always been "representation" as distinct from the systematic recording of the appearance of the natural world, or the setting down of inspired visions of the supernatural one. These latter activities may well have a secondary part in the practise or the training of a painter. Three areas of speculation suggest themselves. One, dealt with in the Jamesian story, has to do with the roles of model, or object or idea, in stimulating the painter; the second, perhaps not stressed in this instance by the writer of 1893 but a recurrent and visible pre-occupation throughout the history of art, involves the painter's reactions to his canvas and what he has placed on it; the third is the technical means of transition between these two. Our Century has produced an abundance of theoretical and practical displays in all three separate fields, frequently swamped, in the first case, by sociological and political considerations, and in the second by psychological or philosophical ones. This is symptomatic of the self-consciousness of the twentieth Century artist - either ashamed of himself for not being a scientist, engineer, intellectual or whatever, or mulishly proud of the incomprehensibilities of his untutored instincts. Both attitudes undermine and undervalue the Status and scope of the art, and distract the attention of the painter from the issues which are his proper concern. To those who have succeeded in identifying such issues and concentrating their energies upon them belongs Peter Schermuly.

His starting point has always been the practical, the real, the substantial — whether this is taken to be the model or motif, the technical procedures of description which they stimulate or the final represented reality on the picture. For the laws of painting are neither linear nor causal, and the material mark on the canvas can be the beginning of the process of painting or its end result. In any attempt to analyse what Schermuly has been doing for the last forty odd years it may be wise to emulate his method, eschew vague theory and turn our attention to the works themselves. This is not to ignore the fact that he has given very precise formulations of his own theoretical, as well as practical position.

Let us look at two paintings of the nude female figure: Liegender Akt mit Schachbrett und Grosser Rückenakt.

In the lying figure we are first confronted by the monumental physical presence of this nude woman, looking steadily out of the painting, with her gaze divided between the viewer and the space beyond him. She is neither displaying nor hiding her nudity, nor is she oblivious of it. The painter has presented three main sculptural forms — the upper torso, the full belly and the thighs — articulated perfectly to one another and linked together above and below by the arms and hands. These forms are tied to the picture plane at the left by the cut-off lower legs, and culminate at the top right in, not a head, but a portrait face of almost demonic, if sceptical intensity.

We have described the forms as sculptural, but the figure is in no sense a naturalistic description of a solid. It is sculpted, rather,

from the plane of the canvas itself, the contours of burnt umber twisting behind and in front of that plane, continuously corrected by the brushmarks which suggest the flesh and construct the skin. It is in the unified representation of these three elements — the figure, the flesh and the skin — that we find one of the most important achievements of Schermuly's work, the translation of Observation into invention. Examining the surface of the painting, we are aware of the exactness of touch in placing the warm and cold greys which give that surface the luminosity which make it look as if it would feel like skin could it be touched by anything but the viewer's eye.

The enviroment in which the figure is set grows out of a series of reflections and inspirations stimulated by the process of paint-ing it. This is not to presume any particular sequence of execution. Two kinds of play are involved — the subject of chess, and the fruitful contradictions of represented space, brought together in the perspectivical chessboard of which the arm cuts off one corner. The other hand has removed a piece from the game, holding it speculatively. The shadows under the same hand echo the piece - the black queen - as the yellow tassels of the cushion relate to the colour of the white pieces remaining in play. The board itself penetrates the plane of a second picture, a curtained landscape placed in its turn before a drape and the ultimate black background.

The blacks of this painting are as subtle and as varied as the light colours of the flesh, to which they form a counterpoint. Each of the black areas, whether it is describing the hair, the landscape rocks, a shadow or the Squares of the chessboard is a distinct and independent colour which never loses, however, the straightforward blackness of what it is Standing for. Between these two extremes of tone are the pinks and greys, tiny variations in actual hue which still suggest a vast range of colour from the rose of the skin to the sunset reds of the fragment of sky in the back. The sitting nude treats the distinctions of dark and light with more contrast — one might say with more drama. For it is only in a composition of such intense sobriety, and with such scrupulous attention to the detail of the inanimate that the dramatic may be introduced without self-indulgence and without irony. Any grand conception of the female nude relates to a long tradition of forms and iconography, but here the manifold references are peculiarly Condensed and oblique. The position of the back, legs and arms is a Variation on Titian's Venus and Adonis, which itself derives from an antique sculptural model. But whereas Titian's Venus twists violently to the right to hold her departing lover, Peter Schermuly's turns calmly to the left to contemplate as in a Vanitas the reflection of her own darkened face. This gaze into the interior space of the painting focuses our attention even more on the majestic back where the model-ling of the greys mingles with the local colours of the skin, stretched under the flickering brushwork which builds the highlights. At the cheeks of the buttocks the red changes in intensity and becomes both an element in describing the form and a refected glow from the velvet drape. The same earth red in a more concentrated hue becomes the local colour of the heel set firmly where it should be in line with the chair legs.

At the top of the canvas once more, the space between the model's head and its reflection is defined precisely by a yellow highlight on the metal frame of the painting. This second picture extends the iconography into a Suggestion of flora. The mood of the flowers, like that of the reflected head, is sombre, almost desperate, but the water jug in which the arrangement is placed is joined to the two seashells, both delineated with a clarity and a verve which combine with the celebratory tone of the flesh to signify a Venus Anadyomene. The painted surface, divided into areas which bear no relationship to numerical proportion but grow out of the exigencies of the meeting of objects and shapes within the frame, is marked with accents of colour which both locate these areas spatially and animate the local colours on which they are placed.

We may ask here, like Henry James, what function the model itself has in the procedures of painting these works. There is no question of naturalism, or of any so-called examination of the principles of seeing. What results on the canvas is an invention, a poetic reality whose conception was stimulated by a particular model without being a recording of it. The specific character and appearance of the figure is important. Schermuly would no more think of taking a sunburnt, muscular athlete as a starting point for his meditations than he would consider a famous bad restaurant as a possible venue for good conversation. The stereotype would allow too little room for the imagination: This meditation on the surface of the real form, the purpose of which is to arrive at just the right decision on which tone and colour to apply to a particular area of the canvas, is central to his art. We use the term "meditation" rather than Observation at this point because it is part of an instinctive technical procedure (we speak of course of the trained instinct) which includes what is seen, how the colours are mixed and what they represent. How the colours are mixed, and then applied, is after all the core of painting. Away from the possibly ambivalent Situation of the flesh and its colours, the still life is a genre which concentrates this issue even more.

The canvas surface is used, equally with the palette, to introduce, counterpoise and animate the range of colours chosen to be present at the occasion celebrating a given still-life arrangement. Such arrangements are frequently, though not always, centred, but the encroaching planes of the background and the interstices, the surrounding base and the secondary objects and highlights tighten over the surface into a kind of painted skin in which the Spaces are as weighty as the forms. Each of these forms has a range of expressive qualitites. They lie together, Stretch out, curl round, stop or advance as they approach one another. The outlines and overlaps which suggest these movements are made from colours drawn by the brush. The very exact delineation in these pictures is always of a painterly rather than a graphic nature.

This perhaps is a ground for Schermuly's prediliction for painting flowers. The structure and growth of a plant, or a bouquet, provide a parallel for the development of passages of colour. But also the apples are essays in red and green, the bananas are the products of adventures in the field of yellow.

Take, for instance, the still life Bananen und Äpfel (Fig. 69). The dish is of gold ochre, the warm, deep violet which defines the receding sides mixing to a colder green where it describes the shadow of the curved front. Accents are set in earth reds and orange, with small touches of almost white. The six apples, six particularised shapes, are built into a form which fits exactly the volume suggested by the recession of the dish. Whereas the apples appear to be constructed from a series of small brush-strokes carrying the green and red pigments, the bananas, planted like a banner at the top of the pile, are made up of sweeping areas of pale ochre bounded by lines of umbra. All this is placed on a table top covered in a shimmering grey cloth whose wider folds extend into the background, transforming themselves into the rocks and clouds of a landscape, in front of which the still life is set like a monument to the triumph of substance. The same spatial framework of the plane of a table top receding into and up to a structured but indefinable background is used in the Entchen und Blümchen. One could trace the origins of these background objects to a canvas, a chair leg, a pillar or a bench. But their everyday attributes have been stripped away, replaced by the purely formal qualities which befit their role in the painting.

A black brushline is the shadow thrown by a rectangular joint, three grey ones are the grain of the wood. The horizontal line of the floor is tilted upwards, the surfaces of the pillar dissolved. Every descriptive illusion is concealed by the more urgent reality of surface colour, which here becomes the substance it is representing.

On the table top, covered by a green cloth or, better, made of green, the purpose and the means of representation change. The opaline vase, where the sharp illusion of light and texture is achieved by a breath takingly simple and direct technique, holds a spray of tiny white flowers, their delicacy of form matched by the precision of execution.

In front of them, just arrived or about to depart, is the duckling. This frail crature, alive or stuffed, comic and tragic, is one of Peter Schermuly's most significant inventions. The handling of the colour and the brush gives it material characteristics which set it in a different physical world to that of the painting around it, however convincingly it may be placed there spatially.  It is through such a shift in our perceptions, but without any confu-sion or mystification, that we are enabled to see past the banality of objects and to become aware of the existence of space and substance as we are aware of the ambiguous presence of our own body. There is no analytical way of explaining how this occurs — how the painter, in the course of his work, enables himself and the spectator after him to enter this State of heightened perception, of visual excitement, which has been called the poetic or the metaphysical. Here one becomes conscious of the demonic behind the chaste, of the inexorably rational among the wildest fantasy. The term "metaphysical" does not imply any connection with a particular school or the use of a certain kind of subject matter or manner of painting. Still less do we refer to some vague yearning for the transcendental in the appearance or effect of the works.

The revelatory moment for the painter does not come by chance, yet cannot be programmed to arrive reliably and regularly. It is indeed less a moment than a condition, achieved through the scrupulous observance of technical rituals and a rigorous mental discipline. But the disciplines of the painter are not those of the simple soldier or cleric. His Crusades and adventures in the white field of the canvas are, like those of the ideal knight, tests of his ability to retain the proper attitude rather than to achieve any local advantage. Ultimate success requires just the right balance between the powers of imagination and execution and is measured and recognised on the canvas by a Coming together of colours, tones, space and drawing in a close but tense rapport which seems as inevitable as it is unpredictable.

Histories of 20th Century painting have been written in terms of the treatment of space, form or light; the canvas as object; the artist as person; the history of ideas or the mechanism of the market. Hegel bless us! Schermuly may be touched a little by any of these, but is cornered by none. He is not concerned with continuing tradition or breaking with it, but with using it as a natural part of his inheritance. He has found in this a way of painting which is capable of occupying all of his particular temperamental and cultural faculties, and as such it is distinct from all schools or movements.