Catalogue Essay

About 1789

The darkest shadow, the brightest light

Jacques Henric

At the threshold of the third millennium, a handful of artists still refuse to accept Heidegger's observation that Western art has reached the terminus of its metaphysical journey and has become incapable of attaining the "concrete dimension" of the work of art. It is true that a certain number of major tendencies in the art we call modern have seemed to confirm such a judgement. But, for those few artists, resisting this phenomenon of entropy has taken the form, as Heidegger put it, of "grasping before it is too late what is threatened with destruction". Now, does not saving the part of man that is threatened with destruction mean reckoning up and analysing those very forces and impulses that drive him to destroy himself? That, at any rate, is one of the tasks which the very concrete work of Tony Scherman has set itself This is an oeuvre that, unlike so many others thrown up by our century, is not militant, polemical and imprecatory, no more than it is humanistic and moralising. Scherman is no preacher. He has no dogma to deliver. What he offers is something much more essential, and he offers it by the sole resources of painting: a vision. The fact that, after expressing itself through scenes from Ovid and Shakespeare, this vision should take as its umbilical centre the French Revolution indicates a rigorous sense of logic. Ovid and metamorphosis, Shakespeare and tragedy... what event can compare with the French Revolution–which, as Michelet has shown, is one of the most fabulous trivial and lyrical episodes in universal history–when it comes to concentrating, in so short a space of time and on such a narrow stage (a few districts of Paris), the essence of metamorphosis and tragedy?

The French Revolution is not only the preparation, the dress rehearsal and the quintessence of what would constitute the horrible grandeur and the superb infamy of the centuries that followed–it's all there, the best and the worst: the combat for liberty, incredible devotion, but also factional infighting, the Terror, totalitarian deviations, fanaticism the beginnings of genocide (the Vendée)–it is also and most of all that wild dream, that generous, magnificent and perfectly monstrous utopia that the 20th century would attempt to bring about: to make a new mankind. Nazism and Stalinism were only two of the most deadly perversions of this will to overturn what makes man human: the symbolic, that unique and inextricable interweaving of Word and flesh (the abolition of the traditional calendar, the change of patronymics and names for things are but the most visible signs of this). The paradox is that this big bang in social, political, moral and symbolic history is both a totally new phenomenon and yet as old as the world itself. As old as the world, for ever since Homo Erectus learned to talk, to think and to dream, there has not been a moment in his arduous peregrinations on earth when he has not tried not only to improve the conditions of that sojourn, which is praiseworthy, not only to dream of heaven, which is understandable, but also to bring heaven down to earth and institute the paradisiac reign of complete happiness, which is not without its tragic consequences. When eschatological hopes fail and man seeks to pre-empt the afterlife, catastrophe is inevitable. To restore the world and mankind to their proper place, without delay, that was the towering ambition of the French Revolution, and what makes it so unique compared to the many earlier attempts, is that it put its programme into practice over a duration which, on the scale of human history, is barely the batting of an eyelid. Every catastrophe, whether historical or affecting a single human subject, originates in a failure to grasp the truth of time. Millenarianisms, Messianisms, avant-gardisms, decadentisms–all these -isms have always been so many ways of getting entangled in the threads of time. Now, surely, it is right to counter this linear conception of time with the incisiveness of vertical time, to open up that dead horizontality with the cross-sections to which Scherman judiciously gives the name epiphanies. Is this not one of the essential functions of art? Certainly, for me, it is what informs Scherman's paintings. An artist, oblivious of fashion, in a solitary confrontation with time. His very action as a painter, the materiality of his painting, make him what, to borrow the coinage of the Austrian novelist Robert Musil we might call an ethicist. Ethics, which have nothing to with morality, presuppose a relation between the subject and his experiments, his experience, his personal commitment. Scherman doesn't say: "this is what I must do", but "this is what my painting says I am". In other words, here is how the very concrete work of the painter–the material he uses, the wax, the touch, differences in speed of gesture which I would describe as quasi-Spinozan, reprises, painting-over, the framing of faces, that zoom technique, like cinema, which shrinks space, destroys classical perspective, puts each element of reality on the same level isolates a seemingly insignificant detail makes use of metonymy which, by the choice of a part in place of the whole (a bunch of flowers for Mirabeau's funeral an unmade bed or his dog, for Robespierre, a horse grazing in the countryside for the massacre at Oradour), raises meaning to an incandescent pitch–here, then, is how the work of the painter renders the old naïveties of narrative obsolete (Scherman does not do history paintings, does not offer a fresco of the French Revolution); how a living practice of verticality makes conceivable not the pure and simple analogy (Scherman makes only parsimonious use of metaphor–an eagle to signify Marat) between different historical periods (the Terror, Nazism) but to signal the correspondences and echoes between them. Clearly, then, Scherman 's painting is not designed to decorate lounges. It is thought in action, and we should not be surprised if that thought is generated by figures: need we recall that Freud considered thought in images closer to unconscious processes than thought in words, and certainly much older. The work on time undertaken in Scherman s paintings could be summed up in the merging of two moments: "That was!" and "That's it!" The oeuvre is a superb and terrible machine for thinking through the repeated inscription of the present in the past and in the time to come. It is an experiment conducted in the realm of the sensible, touching on sense and the senses. Did not Nietzsche say that "aesthetics is applied physiology"? To read the world is to learn to read one's own history, it is to practise a permanent deciphering. The canvases of Tony Scherman that take the Terror as their theme tell us, among other things, the stories of men–Robespierre, Marat, David, but also Speer, Goebbels, Hitler–who, because they failed to discern the cold animal cruelty, the slime, the foul seepage of the soul the infernal phosphorescence that inhabited their inner depths, inspired the most atrocious tyrannies with the most virtuous of sermons. Scherman is right to show us Robespierre's bedroom. This narrow space is where it all began. When fantasy and sex life are blocked on all sides, death steps in as ersatz sexual pleasure. The death drive goes full throttle and the damage is deadly for others and for oneself Look at the faces painted by Tony Scherman. See what ignoble storms the painter must have weathered, what foulness he must for a moment have treated with, what dark music must have dinned in his ears, what rotting matter he must have dredged, what muck he must have turned, what bloody and purulent wounds he opened, what bubos, pustules and necroses he must have pressed so that, by the force of his fist, at the tip of his brush, he could put a face on that unfigurable thing that is the gaze of truth, that mirror where the soul sees itself and is lost in the seeing, found in its loss.

Scherman 's staple material is wax. Like oil it is almost sacramental certainly liturgical. Candles, a gentle, flexible and changing light for the darkest chapels, for the most remote and opaque corners of the soul... "Look for the brightest light and the darkest shadow", enjoined Manet Among contemporary painters, Scherman is no doubt one of the closest to the creator of Olympia (their common passion for flowers, their search for the darkest shadow and the brightest light..). The luminescence of wax, the timelessness of this luminous substance that flows, coats, incorporates, fills, protects but also slips through, insinuates itself infiltrates, hollows and breaks down and divides colours and humans, separates the living and the dead, good and evil good from itself evil from itself Unguent wax and vomited wax: yellowish wax, bluish wax and sanious wax. With it, through it, Scherman displaces and opposes signs, deconstructs them, empties meaning and then reconstructs it He utters the horror of a supposed sublime, the sublimity of a recognized horror.

Faces. Robespierre, David, Goebbels, Speer. Human faces far from the face of God. Animal remainders: dogs, a cock, an eagle. And those mouths. Powers of darkness

concentrated around the mouths. Mouths, holes through which the infernal soul is ready to pop out Lips, panting tongues, runny like the last overripe raspberry. Time has run dry in the veins, under the skin, in the deep folds of flesh. Silently rotting faces of catastrophic idols. Cadaverous faces sweating pus and putrescent blood. Base, spineless, self-cannibalistic, morbid hedonists, relishing aromas of carnage foretold, themselves meat destined for the same charnel houses, dressed already in their fine and ignoble colours.

The eyes. The eyes have holes. More than the mouths: are holes. Lost gazes that are not really looking at us, that look at the death from which we look at them. Return to sender. There is a haemorrhage in the houses of being. The theologians of Port Royal, who meditated and wrote much on the image, considered that all true portraits were a figure of the subject's death and that the greatest lie was to represent one who is dead as a being alive. Scherman takes this truth-seeking further. He paints life not as already dead but as forever inhabited by the forces of death. Made of humus and mud, this is us.

What! "Us" did I say? Us, these tatters of flesh embalmed alive, these flayed guignols with their crepitating decay, these greenish freaks in a state of advanced decomposition? Us, this mush, this cyanosis, this bilious blue so close to the blue of the sky? Us, our portrait?

Not a dogma but a vision. That, as I said, was what is offered by the painting of Tony Scherman. And a vision that confirms, reinforces what we know about the French Revolution now that we have thrown out both Marxist catechism and Rights-of-Manism–in short, that 1789 and 1793 are cut from the same cloth. Rereading Augustin Cochet, François Furet put an end to the fallacious opposition between the two and showed how the matrix of totalitarianism was in place well before 1789, when the fiction of a Sovereign People began to take the place of civil society and the state and to merge mythically with the source of Power itself this being the result of a series of usurpations and, via secret societies, lodges and clubs, soon falling into the hands of militant minorities and secret oligarchies.

The same dynamic is at work, here and now. That is the message of Tony Scherman's painting. Yes, you may be amazed that these monstrous faces on the walls of the Galerie Templon that all verge on the irrepresentable should come to occupy a place in our memory, a place we might have thought unattributable. Look at them. Look at us. Between them and us, the silent modulation of Scherman 's colours. These colours are the seal set on us by a living being, set on us mortals, and that frees us from death. Yes, of course that death still exists, but the painting tells us that it has never been, that it never will be a state. Look more closely at La Vendée (1997), this cadaver whose empty sockets stare out voraciously. Approach your ear-stick it up close to one of these holes as if trying to hear the sea in a shell. What do you hear? When the Most High reaps the cemetery, I, a death's head, shall be the face of an angel.

Does Tony Scherman's painting have something to do with resurrection? That, with this text, was exactly what I was driving at.

Translated by Charles Penwarden