Catalogue Essay

pensées impensables (unthinkable thoughts) 

Ihor Holubizky

pensées impensables has been devised as an installation, following a comment that Scherman made with respect to painting and architectural space: “the wall does not need the painting, but the painting needs the wall.” Scherman framed the installation as a metaphor, as the work on paper are unframed.

The best metaphor that has come to me [is that] of the battery. Napoleon is the copper plate; the Anthony Hopkins is the zinc plate. So read: Cu=the real and Zn=simulation. If that battery were set up, the drawings, pinned to the wall would represent the ions moving across the acid. At a molecular scale, these ions cannot obey any laws that pertain to logical necessity or causality, and therefore, can be drawings that can be photographic notations, and/or thoughts that might or might not have anything to do with the plates. It leaves my door wide open, and your [my] curatorial door truly radicalized. - Ihor Holubizky

This is the first public gallery exhibition to focus on Tony Scherman’s drawings, and to examine the relationship between his drawing and painting. The two disciplines cohabit Scherman’s practice in both independent and co-dependent ways. 

Scherman’s subject matter appears in cycles, or series, that have delved into Greek mythology; Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Napoleon and the French Revolution; and his so-titled Blue Highway series of popular culture figures.1 He engages the cultural and intellectual property of history and mythology, extracted from the public domain of film, photography, and magazines. Scherman does not over-intellectualize his subject matter, but is conversant with philosophical theory. And although his work is drawn out of the deep and opens wounds of our human psyche, he is not an artist of the neurotic for the sake of appearances, or to be “manneristic-edgy.”

Scherman’s drawings are his way of thinking, more than studies for painting, yet nothing in his work is as simple as it may appear. Contradictions and paradoxes are invited and revealed. An apt example is the last words of Col. Kurtz -- from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness -- “the horror, the horror,” made famous in the public domain by Marlon Brando in the film Apocalypse Now. The repetition of the word is a thought that unfolds the map of all our fears and anxieties in the modern world. The image of horror, the unspeakable or the unthinkable, is whatever comes to mind.

The studio is Scherman’s laboratory: drawing affords him an opportunity to experiment, to visualize thoughts, and to generate ideas. Experiments can go awry, but the miscues can lead to eurekas and invention. Ideas or fortuitous revelations may be incorporated into the paintings, but the drawings are kept separate from the painting agenda by Scherman’s intention, even if the drawings edge towards painting -- hence the complexities of his codes. Some drawings may only emerge to his satisfaction after a year or two of work. He stated that he is a “desperate draughtsman, and will do anything in the drawing to achieve a result,” and that “I try to achieve a result by means that I have not seen before.” They are often done on the cheapest of papers: recently, he has worked on photographic inkjet enlargements. He returns to subject matter because the results will be different, as are his thoughts. 

Scherman’s paintings are, likewise, intensive undertakings: they are revised and radically transformed at regular stages, and like the drawings, sometimes abandoned. Encaustic (melting wax with pigments) has been his medium of preference since the mid-1970s. Unlike oil paint, encaustic cannot be blended. Scherman applies it in layers to achieve a comparable optical mix, using techniques he has developed over the years. But mistakes happen that, as he said in conversation, “cannot be foreseen,” and thereby lead to solutions, yet often cannot be replicated. Over the past dozen years, Scherman has painted portraits. They differ from the historical genre -- the commemorative or society portrait -- in that Scherman extracts attendant cultural scar tissues and mythologies that form over time. The acceleration of mythology is a consequence of living in an age of history-in-the-making and a continuous stream of personification, which we may call adulation, dramatization, or popularization.2 Two portrait paintings form what Scherman describes as the zinc and copper for the exhibition and installation, done for different reasons but having affinities (the artist’s commentary to follow). One is of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the 1981 television film The Bunker. The Napoleon portrait is from Scherman’s Chasing Napoleon cycle of paintings. Both faces present a personification of history. Hitler is now the pre-eminent demon of history, whereas Napoleon is considered an heroic figure, but Scherman identifies an ambition that may presage that of Hitler 3. With apologies to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, Hitler represents “raw meat” ambition, while Napoleon has been “cooked,” i.e. cultured. 

Along the bottom of one of his prior Napoleon portraits, Scherman wrote the phrase les pensées impensables. Are the unthinkable thoughts those of Napoleon, or Scherman? Accordingly, the subject of documentary fallacy and the “lie and pornography of history” has come up in conversation with the artist -- the portrayal of an historical event that is falsified in order to seduce the audience. While the makers of such films, or writers of books, claim that it is for the purposes of entertainment, the idea is still presented with the notion that it is history. People want to believe it’s true. Scherman’s Hitler painting is titled Anthony Hopkins as Hitler on his 50th birthday. Hitler turned 50 in April 1939: he was at the height of his power, prior to his “expressed” ambitions with the start of WWII in September of that year. The exhibition portrait of Napoleon is titled Napoleon in drag and the powder that he used. We can see a literal reading without needing to read the title -- the smear of lipstick (or is it blood?), or clown makeup. The play on words is the powder keg. Is this a commentary on Napoleon’s legacy, or was Napoleon dragged -- in drag -- by history, or the making of it. To meet “your Waterloo” -- the site of Napoleon’s final defeat -- has entered common usage, but one with honour, unlike Hitler’s sordid end.4

There is another critical aspect to the paintings. Hitler was one of the most photographed public figures of the first half of the 20th century, but Napoleon’s face is only known through art. Scherman’s portrait therefore, is a forensic study extracted from extensive research, and yet presented within the conventions of self portraiture, as if Napoleon is staring into a mirror at a critical moment in his career. Hitler’s portrait is the other side of the mirror, the television or movie screen, as he is always on trial for crimes against humanity. The actor depicting Napoleon has some free license, and it is not surprising that the young Marlon Brando would take on the role in Desirée (1954), and that his Nazi officer character in The Young Lions (1958), would be Napoleonic. However, the actor who takes on Adolf Hitler faces an immense challenge. Can the demon be given a human face? Scherman commented, “when a culture does something heinous, the repressed comes back as metaphor, rises up from the body of culture and sublimates: it becomes myth.” Scherman’s interest in painting the mythic subject -- the demons or heroes of history -- is the possibility of demythologizing them, which in turn, is another form of taboo.5

The drawings also present a different facet of Scherman’s thinking. He emphasized that they are not so much generated by text as are his paintings: “the drawings are an impulse to articulate things I see. But some have thematic dimension to them, and I can put them in series or groups.” There are familiar subjects in the exhibition works -- flowers, food, dogs and animals, child and other face studies, and body fragment studies. These are given portent (a heart of darkness), through the making -- the manner of drawing and painting -- and the titles, or in the absence of a title. 

The food-subject work on paper titled Lunch at Wannsee, is a reference to the Nazi conference held at Wannsee, near Berlin on 20 January 1942. The horrible absurdity is that a light lunch was served as the “Final Solution” for the extermination of Jews in Europe was formulated. We then must question the appetite, ethics and morality of the conference participants. Does a dominant ideology -- evil, as it is based on false hypotheses -- supersede an individual’s ethics (the inherent good)? Scherman has not proposed an answer in this or any work, as if a moral high ground: he is asking the question. Another food-subject work is titled Versailles 21.6.1789, the day after the so-called Oath of the Tennis-Court, and the assertion by the French assembly (the Third Estate) that the sovereignty of the people did not reside with the King: the beginning of the end of privilege. Is this a drawing of the last meal, or the food left on the table when Louis XVI fled Paris on the 21st. The unthinkable (the end of privilege), therefore, is also the unknowable (how we choose to interpret the subject matter). A work titled Emma Bovary is a reference to Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary, an examination of bourgeois life in mid-19th century France, but the novel’s subtext is the betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution by Napoleon. But the drawing is that of a child’s head, rather than a woman. Is this a prequel, a sign of innocence, or do children have unthinkable thoughts as well? Another child-head subject is Gudrun Himmler, and a related paradoxical work is Chez les Himmler, a vase of flowers. A lesser demon of history, Heinrich Himmler would have had flowers on the table, as we all do at home. This drawing is done on the reverse side of waxed butcher’s paper -- a vulgarized mirror effect, but the purpose of the paper is to resist blood. It is not a material that we associate with the expression of a floral sentiment. 

Another example of sentiment-contradiction is embedded in the work Blondie. Scherman’s dogs are thinking animals, with feelings, and are specific, belonging to a demon or having demonic presence. Scherman noted in the interview, that the portrait of Hitler’s dog Blondie destabilises sentiment. If we love dogs, we are sharing a common thought with a demon. A twist can be seen in Scherman’s drawing of an atomic bomb blast: it looks flower-like, a bloom, butis titled For Eddie Teller (1908-2003), the physicist who left Germany when Hitler came to power, and who developed the hydrogen bomb. Another atomic cloud work is “inexplicably” titled Toronto : it could be a cautionary vision, or a vision relating to the urban presence of the CN Tower. The cut and floating flowers in an untitled work can then be read as having been blown apart, or are they the flowers discarded after Hitler’s 50th birthday parade in Berlin?6 In the work titled For Martin Heidegger, a single cut flower is drawn over a monochrome inkjet photograph of two concentration camp prisoners. Heidegger (1889-1976), was one of the key philosophers writing on existentialism, but was also a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party who never recanted until his death. Are philosophy and physics -- as “pure” thought -- excluded from the consequences? Other works suggest the unseen and undocumented, but speculated-upon intimacy between Hitler and Eva Braun. Again, this is the métier of documentary fallacy, the between-the-sheets storytelling, as in the work titled Nights with Jack, which may refer to the forensic scandalization of John F. Kennedy’s life (and which has entered into unfathomable screen scenarios and hypothetical depictions, the industry of scandal as entertainment).7 It could also be another “Jack” -- Jack the Ripper, or the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock, sometimes referred to as Jack the Dripper. In other words, Scherman’s work also invites interpretation, rather than invoking closure. Scherman stated that he uses the documentary fallacy in a deliberate way: “it is painting, not history, so I can lie in order to reveal a truth.”

Scherman’s cast of characters also includes Oedipus, (actor) Gillian Anderson, Odin (in the guise of Scherman’s Scottish Terrier, Hugo) , modernist architect Mies Van der Rohe (Hitler, a closet architect, favoured architect Albert Speer), and 18th century French philosopher Voltaire.8 Among the unexpected is a drawing of Daffy Duck, titled The perfect metaphor. Daffy is not a duck but a cartoon personification who suffers the angst of being. On the official Looney Tunes website, Daffy is described “like the Greek hero Sisyphus, a victim of injustice who continuously protests. And it's his refusal to surrender his will to the whims of the conspiring universe that makes him heroic.”9 If the heroic is also the comedic, and the demonic can be the mythic, there are no boundaries for the unthinkable. Scherman commented that the condition of the current cultural game -- the discourse of the day -- is akin to playing tennis with the net down. And if the universe can “conspire,” it reflects the unknowable that is greater than our will. Scherman noted, “over the years I have allowed my subconscious to manifest itself. I don’t get in the way -- my job is to see what’s in there.”


Notes: Tony Scherman quotes are from correspondence with the author and interviews held in July 2003.


Scherman describes The Blue Highway as a metaphysical project; “Blue is the colour that has historically been ascribed to metaphysics. The subjects have all suffered for the theft of their soul.” Among the characters overexposed by photography are Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain. For Scherman, Hitler is also on The Blue Highway, or perhaps casting a shadow. Scherman wrote that the work is his attempt “to build a bridge for the soul to come back to its lawful place.” 


A much-repeated term, the end of history is a reference to the perceived end of long-standing ideological conflicts, capitalism versus communism. Recent world events have proven that wrong, and there will always be other ideological conflicts: it is human nature. 


Hitler may have spawned the genre of the modern war film, not about history, but as it happens. The Three Stooges short You Nazty Spy! (1940), was the first to satirize him, followed by Charlie Chaplin’s feature The Great Dictator in 1941. It is reported that Hitler saw the film, possibly a first in the genre of reportage, cinematic satire. After the war, with its horrific outcome revealed, the tone shifted from good versus evil to “how did we let this happen,” to implicate humankind in the horror. A classic 1960s episode of television’s Twilight Zone is that of a time-traveller returning to pre-war Germany in an attempt to assassinate Hitler and change history. Yet, an unthinkable, black humour has also been interwoven, as in Mel Brooks’ outrageous musical “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers (1968). Napoleon, in contrast, has been treated more respectfully in film, perhaps because the horrors of his wars are not as current, they are history and (still) heroic. He has also been a subject for cinematic art: Abel Gance’s 1925 film Napoleon, was made as an innovative, pioneering triptych. 


In an episode of the BBC, Irish Catholic priest comedy Father Ted (1998), Ted discovers that Father Fitzpatrick is harbouring an old Nazi and collects Nazi memorabilia. The horde included a cyanide suicide capsule: Fitzpatrick inadvertently swallows it, mistaking it for valium, and thereby fulfils “destiny,” or repeats history.


In his book Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes proposed that “myth is a type of speech ... not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message.” In this way, as Barthes continues, anything can become myth, once it passes from historical fact into oral culture, and “open to appropriation by society, for there is no law ... which forbids talking about things.” (St. Albans: Paladin edition, 1976: p.109)


The November 1938 issue of (British) Home and Gardens included a feature on Hitler “at home,” in his Eagles’ Nest retreat. Irony is not possible without hindsight.


Both Hitler and Napoleon have become the subjects of scholarly sexual analysis. The Hitler analysis industry preceded the advent of WWII: the dust cover of the 1938 Hurst and Blackett (British) edition of Mein Kampf was bannered with “Over 5 million copies sold” and posed the question “what will he do next?” Much the same was said of Napoleon, in his time. 


One of Voltaire’s thoughts was “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Napoleon, on the other hand, declared that “history is a myth that men agree to believe.”



Scherman: Interview Preface

The following is an edited text from an interview conducted with Tony Scherman in July 2003. Rather than a verbatim transcript, Scherman’s responses are treated as commentaries -- a form of direct address -- and organized in thematic topics. What is lost -- “in translation”-- is nuance. Scherman is passionate in conversation, and interjects humour as a form of self-questioning. His commentary, however, should not be read as privileging one idea over another. These are his thoughts on the unthinkable, as well as shared thoughts.

Philosophical theory, as noted in the essay, is an engine driving much of Scherman’s thoughts and studio practice. He is not painting philosophy but has wondered to himself if he is not, indeed, a painter with philosophy, and how these thoughts can be visualized. In conversation, Scherman discussed David Hume (Scottish 1711-1776); Immanuel Kant (German, 1724-1804), and William James (American, 1842-1910). They represent an arc of 250 years in the building of modern philosophy. David Hume dismissed the standard accounts of causality: he argued that our conceptions of cause and effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking. Hume offered important secular, moral theories, and addressed the consequences that result from our actions. Kant believed that it was human reason that invested the world, which is experienced, with structure. And that our judgement enables us to have the experience of -- say -- beauty, and being able to grasp those experiences as part of an ordered, natural world with purpose. Williams James was the first professor of psychology in an American university, when he began teaching in 1875, but shifted to philosophy by 1885. To quote James, "My philosophy is what I call a radical empiricism, a pluralism, a 'tychism,' [chance as an objective reality] which represents order as being gradually won and always in the making. It is theistic, but not essentially so. It rejects all doctrines of the Absolute.“

In passing, Scherman made note of a linocut done by an artist-friend that hangs in his studio. It incorporates a Marcel Duchamp comment that operates in Scherman’s studio practice and his private thoughts: “I force myself to contradict myself so as to avoid conforming to my own taste." That paradox is one that Scherman embraces rather than attempts to unravel: “it is almost as if the experience I have of my life is mediated ... but I have to question the discourse of the day.” The answers can only come from the quality and depth of the questions that are asked.