The camera will never compete
with the brush and palette until
such time as photography can be
taken to Heaven or Hell.
Erik Schmidt paints systems. That is already true of his very first works, which show life in the metropolis, night scenes or the bankers. Later, more exotic groups are added, such as the Occupy Movement or Westphalian nobles. From 2015 onward, his system painting has acquired a new quality, for Schmidt begins to overpaint photographs he has taken – and not just images taken by others. To some extent, this turn was born of necessity. Travelling to Tokyo in 2015, Schmidt takes photographs as he usually does. Unexpectedly, he receives an invitation to exhibit his work. Since he does not have any of his works on his person, save said photographs, he does not utilize them as he has done to this point, as source material to paint from, but he painted directly onto the printed photographs. More precisely, he traced certain elements of the photographs with paint, gestural, pastose, dance-like. He laid his own rhythm over the rhythm of the city.
For the second layer, which settles over the photographs in Schmidt’s works, there is a term from the realm of texts, that of a palimpsest. Originally, it refers to parchments from which the old scripture has been scrubbed so that new texts could be written over it. In many cases this did not entirely succeed and the old text could read through the new. This form of intertextuality has since been discussed at length and on many occasions because it provides a seemingly perfect image of the relations obtaining in – primarily literary – texts. For no text has its origins solely within itself. There are always older texts from which it takes as starting points, to which it refers, which it cites. Julia Kristeva has described this relation as that of pheno-text and geno-text. The pheno-text lies on the surface; it confronts us as a phenomenon. Underneath the surface, however, we find various layers of further texts, from which it has emerged, on the shoulders of which it has been created or which it quotes. A quote drags the geno-text into plain sight – it becomes, at least in part, visible like the underlying text of the parchments. In other forms of intertextuality it requires interpretation and inference in order to become accessible.
Yet Schmidt’s paintings are at odds with Kristeva’s subdivision of the palimpsest. Works created on the basis of photographs Schmidt himself has taken indeed exhibit a relation like that of a pheno-image and geno-image – yet the geno-image remains invisible as a rule because it is not shown, but remains in obscurity, in the artist’s photo archives. In the overpaintings, however, the photographs are no longer just the basis from which the image is emerging; rather, they are just as visible. They do not only appear as a fragment, as a quotation would, but as a whole.
In doing so, they highlight a particular feature of palimpsests, which often manifests in interpretations only, namely the competition between pheno-text/image and geno-text/image, that is, between the phenomenal and the genetic level of the work. This competition draws attention to three aspects that are important to Schmidt’s work.
First of all, there is no origin in the sense of a beginning with nothing preceding it. Instead, there has always been the productive engagement with pre-existing things. Schmidt’s images always depart from pre-existing images: those in his head when he embarks on a journey, those he sees when he looks around, those he associates, those he takes photographs of and so on.
Therefore, and that is the second aspect, there is also no authority, which might decide which image or which image layer is the “actual” or most important one, or which might underpin a hierarchy among the multitude of meanings one of his works offers. There is only a palimpsest of various images shining through one another, reaching ever deeper without ever arriving at a point of origin. Likewise, there is only a network of semantic nodes, which we can follow (like a net made of hyperlinks). There is, however, no original or actual sense. Schmidt’s works are ambiguous to a very high degree.
Thirdly, the layering of the images is connected to a particular temporal structure insofar as the images do not only show a moment in time, the blink of an eye as Lessing had it. Rather, the past shines through in the present and vice versa. This non-contemporaneity with itself, as Derrida called it, generates a ghostly presence of the past in the present and (in Schmidt’s case) of the present in the past: for unlike in the classical palimpsests pheno- and geno-image cannot be distinguished in Schmidt’s pictures.
The superimposition of the temporal layers renders the palimpsest comparable to human recollection and human consciousness, respectively, as Thomas de Quincey and Sigmund Freud have noted. It also emphasizes once more the travelog-character of Schmidt’s pictures, as they not only record what has been seen and experienced, but also the productive engagement with it.
That makes the overpainting of the photographs comparable to the overpainting of newspapers, which Schmidt has practiced for many years. Most recently, he has painted a series of pictures in Sri Lanka where he held a residency from March to Aril, 2022. Schmidt felt the situation was bizarre: while he sat with freshly made ginger tea in an artists resort, spending his days between yoga sessions, swimming, walks and taking photographs, he also received news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, his positioning in the Indian Ocean brought into focus other trouble spots, such as the threat to Western economies posed by Chinese expansion in important shipping routes. Schmidt processed this apparent paradox of the splendid isolation at the artists resort and the parlous state of the world, which he learned from newspapers, by overpainting the same newspapers with images inspired by photographs he took on his walks in and around the resort. The result is a series of pictures, in which motifs from the privacy on the island are laid over news from the political world, forming palimpsests, which do not superimpose pheno- and geno-images, but different phenomenal levels of life or experience. They mutually contaminate each other: the intimacy and individuality of painting is contaminated by world affairs; world affairs are contaminated by the intimate sketch. For instance, the image of a water carrier blends into the news of political reactions to the looming energy crisis. The sketch of a seated man mingles with the latest from an economic summit battling the financial crisis. Or the depiction of a cyclist is mixed with a report on the success of the Pakistan national cricket team.
The palimpsest turns individual paintings into social works as it displays the political the ground of the individual and the individual as the basis of the political. And it shows that there is no retreat where the world cannot reach us. Every splendid isolation is always already tainted with world events. Every bit of good fortune is contaminated with misfortune.
The palm tree pictures resist this in a whirlwind of colour and joy. They, too, are overpainted photographs, yet that is hardly discernible because the colour is laid on so powerfully, densely and thick. This results in an almost relief-like structure of the highest plasticity which does not merely reflect the light, but also the painterly dynamism and gesture. The obvious delight of the artist in the sensuousness of painting is transmitted to the viewer. Its continued effect grows into the impression that we can almost feel the Sri Lankan sun on our skin and hear the screams of monkeys and the song of the jungle.
Almost, but not entirely, since Schmidt’s tropical feasts of colour are too beautiful to be true, and on closer inspection we can guess the mundane ground underneath the illusion of high life. Schmidt’s paintings are artificial paradises. Irrespective of how high the crown rises, a small sip of melancholia always swims at their bottom.
That could also provide a perspective on Schmidt’s films fine and Inizio, which he made during his residency at Villa Massimo. In Inizio a younger and an older man (Schmidt) take a walk through Rome. The older man seems to follow the younger man, as if to emulate him. He arrives at a garden, casts off his dark suit, is robed in white garments and wrapped in colourful cloths. He enters a community that looks after the garden, dances, meditates und listens to a teacher. Yet he remains most closely focused on the young man.
The film’s iconography stands in the tradition of the hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden, which has been shaped by mediaeval horticulture and Christian iconology, particularly the veneration of the Virgin Mary. One of the best-known depictions in art history is Fra Aneglico’s Annunciation (1430-1432), but there are hundreds of others. They show the Virgin Mary in an enclosed garden, showing her as an enclosed garden. The hortus conclusus is a place shut off from the world, a monastic site of retreat and reflection. At its centre is a wellspring, a symbol for the fountain of life. Likewise, Mary is a walled garden because she is – as mother of Jesus Christ the Saviour – the source of life and because she has conceived through the Holy Spirit, that is, without her body having been physically penetrated and opened in doing so. The Garden of Eden, too, is imagined as a walled garden, and it is precisely its walls that make it Paradise.
Schmidt’s film draws a tentative parallel between the relation of the older man to the younger and the Virgin Mary, subtly allude to the sexual orientation of the artist, which occurs occasionally in his works. However, the relationship of the men in the film is ambiguous. After all, the older man assails the younger repeatedly. Out of the blue, he pushes him into the dirt. Eventually he wrestles him to the ground and strangles him.
At the end of the film, and back in his black habit, he glides on an e-scooter through the streets of Rome. He has left Paradise behind. The Christian iconography underlying the film suggests the Fall of Man, the expulsion from Paradise or even Cain murdering his brother Abel. However, the spontaneity, the apparent arbitrariness or even voluntariness with which the old man initiates the turn of the story makes us think more of a break-out than an expulsion, assuming a critical and individualist position towards the Christian subtext.
This subtext takes sin to be a rejection of the divine order. That was already Augustine’s view and it has continued – in secularized form – through the Enlightenment and on to Modernism. An action is sinful or morally wrong, if it does not submit to the universal order, irrespective of whether this order is framed within the Christian doctrine of salvation or within the Categorical Imperative, which famously requires us to act in such a way “that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law” (CPR A 54).
In the background of this notion we find a number of strategies of relief. Augustine, for instance, attempts to salvage the perfectibility of creation by situating the origin of evil in the world outside creation itself, namely in freedom. Satan, according to Augustine, had the freedom to turn towards divine creation or to reflect upon himself and turn away from it. Satan decided upon the latter course of action and thus established the pattern of sin. Sin begins with self-reference, using one’s own freedom not for the common good but for oneself. This repeats with human beings. Humans, too, are free to decide one way or another. And if there is evil in the world, then this does not contradict the perfectibility of creation, but is down to human freedom to act in contradiction to the divine order. Sin is “any transgression in deed, or word, or desire, of the eternal law”; what is at work in it is “love of oneself even to contempt of God”. Sin is the sign of a “proud self-exaltation… diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus”. This notion continues to have an effect, through the Enlightenment period, until this day, insofar as the only morally acceptable use of individual freedom is to be in aligning oneself with a universal law, as Kant, for instance, wrote. And the reason for the continued existence of evils – in spite of progressing enlightenment – is taken to be rooted in the wrong actions of people, who have voluntarily decided to act in a way that contradicts the universal law or the common good.
This can be understood, as Peter Sloterdijk does, as relief insofar as human freedom is no longer sinful or morally reprehensible as such, as it was for Augustine, but merely a use of individual liberty which does not further the common good. However, it remains an overburdening of the subject, which is saddled with the Atlantic task of salvaging the notion that creation is perfectible or that the organisation of the world is founded in reason. It is supposed to so by taking on the responsibility for the evils of this world and by deciding in favour of what is universally reasonable instead of its individual desires. However, in essence this means to divest of individual freedom. For an individual freedom, which must submit to the higher universal in case of conflict, is no freedom at all.
Viewed in this light, the “great criminals” (Friedrich Schiller) are freedom fighters. They insist on exercising their individual freedom in the face of universal law. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost Lucifer says after his fall:
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him his best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, verse 242–263
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n! With this gesture Schmidt’s alter ego/older man cruises through Rome, joining the long line of advocati diaboli from Milton’s Satan to Niklas Luhmann – albeit that the defensive strategy of the sociologist is naturally somewhat more nuanced than the “but I want” of the great criminals.
For what if – and Luhmann’s description supports this – the sub-systems of modern societies are differentiated in their functions to such a degree that it is impossible to assess the relation between individual behaviour and common good because each system operates according to its own code and perceives, in its cyclopean monocular vision, what happens in other systems as mere noise of an environment, which it cannot understand, but only sense through its feedback? And what if, therefore, there is no authority, no vantagepoint from which to assess the consequences of a single action within a general, overall context? Could we still expect this subject to align its behaviour with the common good at all? Hardly, for although it can gauge the consequences of its actions within one system at best, it cannot know either which sort of feedback this might generate in other systems or what might be the best state in general, that is, for all sub-systems. I can, for example, assess which consequences it has within the system of economics, if I do not pay for the beer that I want. Since this system operates on a code of paying/not paying, distributing scarce commodities, I may safely assume that I will not get a beer, if I do not pay. What consequences my payment or non-payment will have for the weather, the legal system or the political system I cannot guess, nor could I say whether one or the other is better for the overall common good. I can but keep to my personal desires and to my possibilities: would I like another beer or not? Can I pay for it or not? Philosophically speaking, I can only refer to myself and thus do what Chistian or Enlightenment theodicy prohibits because the functional differentiation of the society in which I live makes the orientation towards the common good impossible. This insight liberates the subject from the Atlantic task of taking responsibility, in her or his actions, for the evil in the world or not yet sufficiently well-ordered conditions in the world. Yet, in turn, this insight abandons the idea of a perfectibility of society. Paradise has been lost, while freedom has been won – not a freedom to anything, but a freedom from, a liberation from the overburdening of the subject, which the theodicies impose on it.
That makes life more profane. That is the story told in the film fine. A man (Schmidt) enters a church, burns his cloak and coats his suit with white ash. He claims to be “average”, to have given up on his grand ambitions. He treks through the narrow alleys of Olevano Romano, a branch of Villa Massimo, and climbs up to the terrace of Casa Baldi. Female vollyball players are intercut with the man walking the streets. The players catch up with him and overwhelm him with their ball playing. Finally, he collapses under their smashes and spikes. Regaining consciousness, he finds himself in white underwear on the parapet of the terrace and pours olice oil over himself. The film culminates in this final frame.
It is the aesthetic of Federico Fellini, which fine recalls. Fellini had dreamed of “turning a film into a painting… The ideal would be to make a film of one single image that is eternally immobile and yet full of motion”. The ending of Schmidt’s film seeks just such an image: it shows the person relieved of the Atlantic burden, the unheroic, profane person.
And what of painting? There are, perhaps, some differences. For even if we describe modern societies as differentiating various systems, which are enclosed and perceive their surroundings only as noise, painting can overcome this functional differentiation in its representation. Schmidt takes photographs of various systems and paints them over. He lays his ductus across the representations of various systems, uniting them in his painting. In art their differentiation is rescinded. Everything is connecting with everything.
In this situation one might ask: could the Atlantic task not once more be laid upon a person, albeit one with an aesthetic education? Not at all, for the syntheses created by art are purely artificial in nature. These paradises are merely artificial, not only not hiding their illusoriness, but shining as brightly as they do precisely because they are nothing but appearance, illusion, pleasant deception of light and shadow, colour and contour. That lends them their melancholic character. Friedrich Schiller would have called it their sentimental character. They conceive of paradise as something that has always been lost, that can only be evoked once more in the aesthetic imagination. However, this loss also lifts a heavy burden off our shoulders – and that makes it twice as beautiful.
Julia Kristeva, “L’engendrement de la formule”, in: Semiotike: recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris 1969, pp. 216-310, here p. 224f.
Augustine, Contra Faustum manichaeum, 22, 27: PL 42, 418; cf. CCC, 1849. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 14, 28; cf. Phil 2, 6-9. CCC, 1850.