In the Style of Gunter Schmidtby Thomas Sanfilip
I waited in his garden overlooking the glittering expanse of Lake Constance and watched a ferry move over the water through a white mist, creating waves that glistened when the sun dimmed and floated overhead midday in clean, pure light that spread everywhere, running blue and clear beneath the surface, over the shoreline as the boat drew nearer, leaving a sound, white thrush of parting sunlight in its wake. And if you concentrated your gaze on the opposite shore you saw the jagged peaks of the Alps dissolve high and away into another sky, deep and grey like the clouds that surrounded, and never clear enough, though the sun bends over them at times clear, shaded or obscure. The ferry keeps a languid straight line to shore, to Meersburg sitting in medieval quietude where endless ranks of people visiting the town from the opposite shore gather at the dock, waiting to return across the lake in endless passage. Perhaps at that moment I was seduced by the real world that lingered just out of reach, but I turned again and heard a call from the house and proceeded to walk into the foyer and up the staircase to meet my host who was standing there waiting for me.
“I’ve only just awakened a few minutes ago,” he said shaking my hand. “I was holding a clock in my left hand, staring at it, but the surface was covered with so much dust the time was indiscernible. I tried wiping the face of it with a cloth in order to see the hands more clearly, but it was hopeless.”
Gunter Schmidt did not realize how hopeless, but the complicit knowledge he assumed I had of his dream warmed me instantly to the man who by himself was completely non-descript. This did not disturb me either in the sense that I hoped Schmidt’s persona was no more abrasive than cat fur, and in fact there was not a trace of character enough to say I was even with a normal human being driven by normal human emotions. This too was reassuring and when he began talking again on our way to his studio I was certain Gunter Schmidt was floating somewhere between heaven and earth, and was even more convinced after he explained his creative process in detail.
“I see a figure leap from a painting running very fast,” he said. “I cannot tell what it looks like, male, female or both. It has awareness, satyr-like, but is completely elusive, taunting me without words. I begin an endless chase after it at such speed that by the time I wake I sense complete exhaustion. Finally, we stop, the figure turns, smiling, taunting as if a final test, then turns and dives straight into another painting. I look on stunned at the miracle and instinctively dive headfirst into the painting after it.”
I heard of Gunter Schmidt by accident in a café on a visit to Munich. There were a number of pictures on the wall for sale all done by some obscure artist, all rather dreary and mediocre, except for one that made me curious, limpid flowers that looked like melted plastic done impasto, yet the title caught my attention, a homage, actually, that read simply –“In the Style of Gunter Schmidt.” I was impressed that someone would attempt to pay homage to another artist’s work in such bad form, but it struck me that behind such reverence suggested an authenticity to Gunter Schmidt that, if so drearily imitated, was a sure indication of the meaninglessness I was pursuing, that Schmidt must have achieved above and beyond what anyone might try to duplicate. Even in its poor rendering, there was the breath of an empty reality that called me out to meet this Gunter Schmidt in the flesh.
My attention must have been so riveted on the paintings, however, that the owner of the café, a short, middle-aged, slightly plump woman suddenly appeared at my side and asked if I was interested in them. I didn’t know what to say.
“The artist is deceased and they’re worth very little,” she said, “perhaps thirty-five cents apiece, but I’ll pay you to take them off my hands.”
She began counting out Euros before my eyes as further inducement because she said they were, in her words, “nauseating to look at.” She then walked with me around the café to point out certain repellent features consistent with all the work.
There were large drawings done in color and black and white chalks, some bucolic scenes in abstract, all in the style of Gunter Schmidt who, though nowhere in sight was clearly the star of the show. She drew my attention to one particular painting that for some reason I failed to notice on my first walk around the cafe, a fairly large painting of a young man in white casual suit standing on a walkway before an ornate house.
“I know this work!” I said aloud.
She looked at me surprised. “That’s not possible,” she said. “The artist sold it to me because he needed money and must have been broke at the time,” and she thrust a thick bundle of Euros into my hand and said all the paintings would be waiting for me in the alley behind the café at closing time.
I stood in the street later to count the Euros and somehow lost count every time I started. No matter how many times I started, something interfered with my rational processes and the only person I could blame was Gunter Schmidt who by some circuitous route of psychic invasion altered my perception of logical order.
It reminded me of the time I decided to cut my hair, beard and moustache. Afterwards I met some people who knew me, though actually I didn’t recognize them. ‘I’ve cut my hair,’ I told them. ‘But you still have your moustache,’ they said. ‘What do you mean?’ I countered, and lifting my left hand to my upper lip, found my moustache still there! ‘But I distinctly remember shaving it off the same time I cut my hair,’ I told them, but they only laughed, thinking I was pulling their leg, though the truth is I couldn’t explain why.
That was my state of mind when I found myself standing in the foyer of Gunter Schmidt’s house overlooking a glistening Lake Constance so blue it belied everything I wanted to believe about beauty. Even as I walked up the staircase to meet him in the flesh, I knew my pursuit was affirmation of everything opposite beauty. I had left my belief behind some years before and like the turning of my back to the broad windows of Gunter Schmidt’s house that caressed the air and light of the lake below, so I denied nature, all to see one man’s renderings of absolute emptiness.
In no other medium is it possible to rip away the true substance of things better than through art, no better way to reveal meaninglessness, for everything sensible and aesthetic has already been ripped away. This is the true beginning point of any encounter with reality, everything stripped of every recognizable feature of elemental substance. I presume this is why so much garbage in the most literal sense finds its way into artists’ hands, the museums filled with falling plaster, house paint, chicken feathers, plain rust and endless looping videos trying to recapture moments lost. There a man shown repeatedly falling down a stairs and no one in the room to witness the catastrophe, and if you do, impossible to avoid the question why when the answer is simply emptiness longing for confirmation, a blind methodology inadvertently stumbling onto blind truth.
How was it then after seeing the imitations of Gunter Schmidt’s work in a café in Munich I found myself waiting to meet the artist who inspired them a year later in the medieval town of Meersburg? I hoped to come full circle on myself in order to erase what seemed to me the false existence of the world. I cannot say when or how this notion became fixed in my brain, a longing to return to nothingness as if to mother, an instinctive impulsive to go back to an essential primality, everything finally erased, including any notion of existence. I wanted nothing less than nothingness, or at least the experience of nothingness that would validate a negated existence.
I realize that emptiness by itself contains no justification of existence, that I myself am a living reality of such a notion, that I have reached non-existence through wholly conscious means, and that what the world brings to my eyes is nothing more than an empty landscape subsumed by my perspective alone. All of this harkens back to the earliest philosophic arguments about God and the universe, that empty or full of substance, somehow we go on living.
I did not know what to expect when I was called inside by his assistant, though the stripped down barrenness of the house, though modern looking from the outside, gave no indication of the emptiness that existed inside, and I was correct in my assumption because there was nothing on the walls, from the foyer to the staircase. Though Gunter Schmidt allowed no one to see his work except by special appointment, and even then after careful scrutiny of third-party references, letters of intent, contractual agreements that spelled out every possible contingency before invitation was extended, and only for a short time, his secrecy only wetted my appetite all the more to see his paintings in his elegant studio overlooking the town and Lake Constance.
I turned around to measure the distance between the windows that looked out on the garden and the staircase where I paused to look back, but what struck me was the utter blindness of the light coming off the lake, and the sky contributing its share of power, and the edge of the garden that fell in a straight vertical line down to the town below, as if the house I was standing in was positioned purposefully away from all prying eyes, that whatever this reclusive painter was rendering was better off placed above and beyond the common folk below.
We paused at a window looking out over the town’s red roofs and moving bodies of tourists below as if walking between the cornices and gutters of Gunter Schmidt’s house. But from where we stood we also could see the lakeside promenade, the constant passage of boats with white sails arched and turning against a warm, blue sky reflected in clear waters crisscrossing to shore, becoming smaller and larger in one blink of an eye.
“You’ve come to see me, so I owe you some measure of truth,” he said still gazing out the window on the lake. “Travel for me is a form of self-destruction, what I mean is that the past or the future is destroyed, perceptions, preconceptions, beliefs, faith. Out of the rumble comes a kind of psychic nudity, an emptiness, a displacement of mind wherein depression and loss of place occurs. You are nowhere and everywhere at the same time, a longing for one place to give meaning beyond all the spaces of emptiness, a place where some semblance of meaning exists for the ultimate good of your human well-being. Perhaps travel is really meant to show the ephemerality of existence, of place and death and all it obliterates, including memory, returning us to non-existence.”
His last word catalyzed me.
“But isn’t art a way to find nothingness?”
“All art is staged,” he answered. “What new technique doesn’t eventually become staged, achievable, predictable? And if so, is it not its most obvious feature? Truth is in the self-portrait alone”
I didn’t know what to say. I had come so far and thought so long on nothingness because I firmly believed he held some key to the grandiloquent gesture of emptiness I longed to embrace, and it was very clear when he escorted me finally into his studio, filled wall to wall in every conceivable corner and space with endless self-portraits, every left eye blackened out and blinded forever.