by Giles Auty

In the context of the art of our time, the voice of Peter Schermuly is far from easy to locate. Indeed, because the artist speaks of himself as ruled by no particular guiding theory, any facile temptation to look for other painters impelled by similar impulses seems, at first sight, doomed to disappointment. Whether other painters do exist in Germany with whom Peter Schermuly might feel some working affinity is difficult for the artist or for me to say. He, at least, allows and welcomes the possibility of such existence whereas my knowledge of contemporary German art is too restricted to make guessing worthwhile. What I can suggest, however, with some degree of certainty, is that Peter Schermuly's general attitudes find interesting parallels with those of certain 20th Century artists in France and America, most notably Balthus and Edward Hopper. In terms of British art, both pre-war and contemporary, points of comparison grow stronger still. There is a long tradition of English artists who felt unable to concur with the prevailing stylistic imperatives of their eras. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) had become themost notable of such artists by the time of his death in 1959 but today pride of place goes to Lucian Freud who, although born in Berlin in 1922, has lived in England since the age of ten. Other interesting examples of this trend include Algernon Newton (1880-1968) and Meredith Frampton (1894-1985) and the tendency continues to find expression today in England in the works of such contemporary artists as Leonard McComb (b. 1930) and John Wonnacott (b. 1940), both of whom, like Stanley Spencer, did their artistic training at the Slade. Peter Schermuly's own first-hand contact with art in England began with his friendship with another former Student of this famous London art school: the Irish artist Stephen McKenna (b. 1939). Both, Schermuly and McKenna, were formerly abstract painters. Indeed, it was on a visit McKenna made to Schermuly that McKenna discovered the radical change in orientation which had taken place in his German friend's approach. In contrast to an artist such as Balthus, or those from the American or British traditions of perceptual painting who had never departed from direct figuration, Schermuly and McKenna had to rediscover for themselves the beauties of the palpable when already experienced as artists. This last distinction is an interesting and vital one, in Schermuly's case especially. Yet the seeds of the change which happened later to Schermuly were implanted as long ago as 1961 and were associated with his rediscovery of the particular, rather than the general, in painting, largely through prolonged exposure to the paintings of Jacques-Louis David in the Louvre. Schermuly was living in Paris at that time.

However, such seeds of change took a long time to germinate, let alone flower. In 1971 the leading American critic Hilton Kramer had written of the necessity for "renegotiating our pact with the past" and this phrase makes the most appropriate description of the processes taking place, at just that time, in the aesthetic consciousness of Peter Schermuly. For an artist raised in times dominated by Paul Klee's dictum that the duty of art is "not to reflect the visible but to make visible" the renegotiating of this pact was bound to be a painful and protracted process wherein each fresh step needed to be measured with caution. Perhaps this time of internal struggle might be summarised fairly as being between the heart and the head. For while the artist feit a growing urge to make paintings in his present manner he was caught up nevertheless in what he saw, at first, as the intellectual anachronism of this desire. The heart, head and hand are a trio which must work in unison for the production of significant art. Essentially heart and head must sing in concantation in painting and, without doubt, Schermuly's art has flourished since the resolution of his personal artistic conflict. At the instigation of his friend McKenna, Schermuly had two short spells of teaching art in Britain, at Canterbury College of Art and at Goldsmith's College in London. Perhaps temporary concentration on the dilemmas of younger artists may have assisted Schermuly in the final resolution of his own quandary. Struck by the inability of so many students to feel their highly generalised paintings could ever be finished, let alone resolved successfully, he noted the immediate benefits gained in resolution when specific subject matter and time limits were introduced. Paradoxically, many students found the degree of licence encouraged previously by other teachers inhibiting. Schermuly found that excess of self-consciousness evaporated and genuine artistic identity seemed to flourish among his students when faced with more structured and straightforward tasks. Experiences such as this reinforced Schermuly's own determination to deal more directly henceforward with what he and others describe as "the mystery of the object". Schermuly has pointed out rightly that, while a very long tradition of still-life painting exists, his own working in this medium is unavoidably of the present. Schermuly departs from past practice in painting most obviously in his lack of premeditated ideas. In short, his paintings are events rather than planned episodes. Indeed, what triggers them is invariably a purely visual Sensation. The artist speaks of being intent on "devouring" the object, in the sense of experiencing its innermost kernel for himself. Significantly the British artist Lucian Freud speaks thus of his response to his models: "I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter, being them." The interest here and in Schermuly's case is oncological. Writing of Lucian Freud, the eminent, America-based, Australian critic Robert Hughes suggests: "Painting is, one might say, exactly what the mass visual media are not: a way of specific engagement, not of general seduction. That is its continuing relevance to us. Everywhere, and at all times, there is a world to be re-formed by the darting subtlety and persistent slowness of the painter's eye."

Continuing on this theme, Hughes says of Lucian Freud's paintings: "They narrate fragments of psychic life we cannot reassemble for ourselves." There is a direct parallel here with the ambitions of Schermuly. Speaking of his still-life paintings, Schermuly states that he is not interested in composing in the accepted sense, for he equates excessive reliance on this practice with pictorial subterfuge. Premeditation of a desired effect or involvement with pictorial artifice might allow the essence of the perceived object to escape. Lucian Freud speaks similarly of his approach to human subject matter: "The model is not an instrument of the painter's fantasies and he is not free to paint her or him any way but head-on." Clearly the idea of head-on confrontation with subject matter involves an element of fear-less challenge. In Schermuly's case, however, the objectivity of the exercise is mediated also by the sensuality of the experience. We do not simply see fruit or flowers through the medium of the artist's paint but very nearly taste or smell them. Schermuly has spoken passionately of the enhanced beauty of fruit or flowers when past their best. Some of his major flower compositions even record the process of decay, with fresh blooms on one side of a vase giving way to drooping stems on the other. It should be emphasised, however, that the processes of ageing are not used either for sentimental or dramatic effect. We are dealing here with an acceptance of inevitable organic change. The artist's message is not pessimistic but affirmative. Given Schermuly's obvious interest and delight in surfaces and textures, there is a temptation to place him in a North European tradition stemming from Jan van Eyck and the Flemish painters.

Yet, both by ancestry and inclination, Schermuly belongs more properly to French traditions. The origin of the artist's name is Swiss and his forebears first settled in France when fleeing from the influence of Calvin in their home country. Even in terms of German 20th Century realism, Schermuly remains very much an Outsider. While superficial links might be made, at times, with pre-war artists of Neue Sachlichkeit such as Christian Schad, major differences are quickly apparent, for Schermuly's art veers radically from the latter in its cohesive, rather than fragmentary quality. This is an important difference to note not only in the manner of the painting but of its underlying philosophy, for where Neue Sachlichkeit pointed to cracks in the social edifice and imminent disintegration, Schermuly proposes something closer to a redemptive oneness. Generally, Neue Sachlichkeit artists focused intently on people and objects in Separation, suggesting the impossibility of ever knowing the nature of objects or of making sensible links between them. The message of Neue Sachlichkeit, in the end, seems to be that all appearances deceive. By contrast, Schermuly asks us not only to enjoy looking but also to believe in what we see through his eyes. His portraits are not so much deliberately psychoanalytical as suggestive of the notion that we cannot help looking as we essentially are. To paint with the head-on directness of Schermuly presents a challenge not only to the artist but to the sitter, for the artist's eye is educated and probing. Even so, what Schermuly paints can have only the palpability of the frozen moment; we know that sitters tire, flowers fade, fruit rots and cats fidget. In this sense, such extreme stillness must always be a fiction, however honest the artist's intention. Even with such confrontational art we must never forget that painting is artifice.

Those who have experience of painting know that an artist's personal relationship with directly perceived subject matter is changed forever by the act of painting it. Only a painter examines objects, people and landscape with such prolonged, intense and affectionate scrutiny. Good art records this intensity of looking yet, by itself, this is only part of the process. While each finished painting by Schermuly is composed literally of thousands of minute artistic decisions, before such subtle tests of skill and character come into play a small number of major choices must already have been made. Selection of subject, composition and size are clearly matters of crucial concern. The artist might have a new painting in his mind's eye, yet the finished reality will always be quite different. In terms of its basic philosophy Schermuly's art seems, as has been stated, to diverge widely from most examples of German 20th Century realism. However a Statement by the Chechoslovakian realist Ernest Neuschul (1895-1968), who trained in Germany, is of continuing relevance to the case of Schermuly in the clarity of the distinction it makes between realism and natural-ism. To this day many who look at art continue to confuse the issue: "Realism, as I understand it, is an expression of belief in the trustworthiness of our senses as the only means of approaching our own inner meaning and that of our surroundings. The naturalist shows how a thing looks, but it is clear the camera can do that even more objectively. The modern realist, on the other hand, finds himself confronted with the more difficult task of expressing through colour and line both the thing that moves him and the way in which it moves him." Neuschul goes on to say: "Abstract painting... does not show what moved the painter, but only how he is moved. I feel it my task to get to grips with and present both the what and the how." Schermuly's embrace of the perceptual in art relates to a personal quest for this kind of duality. Clearly many of the artist's large flower paintings and complex still lifes exist, at one level, as triumphs of painterly application. Yet this is only part of what they are for diligence alone cannot adequately explain their presence.

Schermuly's is an art which is unaffectedly visual. Indeed, in some other time than this, his art might appear to need little explanation or written apology. Unfortunately it has seemingly become impossible today for art or artists to exist in a vacuum. In my preceding text I have tried to provide a contextual key to the artist's aims, largely because these may seem to many to lie outside the general tenor of our era. Indeed, that art should have any immediate visual appeal is often looked on today as an implication of shallowness, yet I would argue that such appeal should be understood rather, as a sign of artistic candour. Part of Peter Schermuly's message lies in an encouragement to observe and revel once more in the particular. Perceptual art such as his is a sign of the artist's accord with the palpable. Far from being an encitement to bourgeois complacency, its philosophy reaffirms a need for stringent Standards of honesty and commitment. When considering the particular in art, one quickly comes up against an arresting paradox. Major art, which seems to deal with the specific, speaks a universal language nevertheless; reflect, for a moment, on the small domestic interiors of Vermeer. Perhaps the existence of a specific subject is necessary to free the artist from the intrusions of self-consciousness; wider significance steals into his art past the artist's averted gaze.

In the introduction to his book British Romantic Artists pub-lished in 1942, the English painter John Piper wrote: »Romantic art deals with the particular. The particularization of Bewick about a bird's wing, of Turner about a waterfall or a hill town, or of Rossetti about Elizabeth Siddall, is the result of a vision that can see in these things something significant beyond ordinary significance: something that for a moment seems to contain the whole world; and, when the moment is passed, carries over some comment on life or experience besides the comment on appearances."

Schermuly has spoken of a desire in art to paint "secularised kons" and, more flippantly, of the necessity for an artist to "look at a lettuce like a lover" if he intends to do it justice in paint. Both expressions provide a vital insight into the intensity of the artist's direct involvement with subject matter. In a sense, he accepts the apparent isolation of his artistic position as a penalty of his beliefs. Yet, as has been suggested already, Schermuly's position may be less solitary than he imagines. As long ago as 1953, the American artist Edward Hopper made this prophetic Statement: "The inner life of the human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of colour, form and design. The term 'life' as used in art is something not to be held in contempt for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with nature's phenomena before it can again become great."

The history of perceptual art in Europe began again in the first years of the 14th Century with Giotto, after a long fallow period. Giotto's humanistic realism and compositional intelligence superseded the more symbolic art which had gone before and brought society its first glimmerings of a more "modern" kind of painting. It is ironic, therefore, that the tradition of realism exemplified in the 19th Century by artists such as Courbet should have been supplanted in our own more modern time almost entirely with new Orders of the symbolic. As we move towards the end of the 20th Century, in an era de-scribed, with little apprehensible meaning, as post-modern, perhaps we should consider using the word "modern" itself in a revised manner. The word would no longer be used as a descrip-tion of style or attitude because, in a sense, all artists who live and work in the modern era are unavoidably modern. We must realise that the experiences of some may lead them, like Peter Schermuly, to different conclusions from most about the best way to work or in which to find and express their truly personal visions. Renegotiating our pact with the past is a convenient description of just one of these options, but we should not forget that complete freedom of choice has always been a central tenet of the modernist creed. To limit our conception of artistic legitimacy only to that which is ostensibly modern in style is to question this freedom and might be said to resemble a deliberate decision to cultivate only a proportion of a very large and fertile garden.

Ironically, Peter Schermuly's lonely struggle to find a vehicle suitable for his singular vision is in the most honourable traditions of modern art. What we must beware of, for the future, is too narrow an understanding of what the expression "modern art" should sensibly be held to embrace.