Studio Visit: Canberra, Australia, 28 October 2008
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Jörg Schmeisser is a printmaker of international stature. He has also been an important teacher in Australia (1978–1997) as Head of Printmaking at the Canberra School of Art, now part of the Australian National University. More recently (2002–2008) he was appointed professor at the Kyoto City University of the Arts. Schmeisser was born in Germany in 1942 where he grew up and went to school before moving to Kyoto for graduate studies in 1968. Teaching appointments and residencies took him to Jerusalem, Perth, Hobart, Kyoto, Hangzhou and Princeton University, and work projects to Ladakh and Angkor. He has had more than 130 solo exhibitions worldwide. Japan has been of great significant in the development of his work and has informed all aspects of his life. His wife Keiko, also an artist has enabled Schmeisser to live in Japan seamlessly and to absorb the culture and aesthetic sensibility in all aspects of life. Returning to Kyoto after almost twenty years teaching in Canberra has given Schmeisser’s career a sense of having come full circle.
Travelling, making art, learning and teaching have long been and continue to be passions of mine. I was able to combine these interests for much of my time. To be passionate is as important as remaining inquisitive and curious about where you are, where you have come from, where you go – and who you are. What you find out there will find its way into your work.
What we do is about communication. To develop ideas is essential – and so is the gaining of skills to articulate them. Japan has instilled in me a great respect for the craft of the arts.
Learn to see – not only to look. There is no better way for that than to draw. If you have not drawn it, you have not seen it.1
Schmeisser is perhaps best known for his richly patterned landscapes of Siena, (1983), Angkor Wat (see review on this website, 2001: ”Heritage of Angkor”), iconic large etchings of Uluru (Ayers Rock), ancient Japanese temples and the remarkable landscape of Ladakh. Ambitious in their range and inspired by a sense of wonderment that Schmeisser has for life and the grandeur of nature, the work is nonetheless characterised by control and precision. Great attention is paid to minute detail, the exact rendering of subject from the tiniest bug or shell, to the magnificent ranges of the Himalayas. Details of sculptures and ancient buildings are particular favourites, his drawing showing absolute respect for the artists and architects who went before him. Since resigning from teaching at the Canberra School of Art in 1997, Schmeisser has continued his travels and exhibited extensively. Most important perhaps for his recent work, was a trip to Antarctica in 1998. The resulting Breaking the Ice, (works from the Antarctic 1998-2003) was shown at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart in 2003 and then travelled to venues in Australia and overseas e.g. Washington DC, San Francisco, Tokyo, Berlin, Cambridge and Canberra. The body of work was breathtaking and of great significance in the development of Schmeisser’s oeuvre. He has relinquished established working methods and embarked on an aesthetic exploration to match the ice- breaker’s physical journey and the nineteenth-century explorers’ leap of faith. Drawing played an important role in the Antarctic works.
Schmeisser travelled on the ice -breaker, Aurora Australis on its annual re-supply trip from Hobart to Mawson and Davis Stations in the Australian Antarctic Territory as artist-in residence. While on board the ship he made drawings on paper and copperplates, groundwork for numerous etchings and paintings. The drawings are liberating and beautiful works in their own right, revealing Schmeisser’s remarkable technical ability. Peter Haynes described him as having, “an exquisitely discerning eye and an unerring ability to imbue his chosen subject with an inner quality that speaks of its essence, of its spiritual core. The subject matter often involves exotic sites and alien topographies. These Schmeisser assiduously relays to the viewer in intricate and interwoven lines, incisions and marks, and overlay of the real with the spiritual, the actual with the imagined.”2
In his early career Jörg Schmeisser worked as an archaeological draughtsman, which, “ingrained in him the habit of clinical, scientific observation in order to convey in an immediate and objective way whatever details of the whole or part of an object were required by the archaeologist. Artistic persona was not something that intruded in these exercises”.3 The position of archaeological draughtsman was established in the sixteenth century where the artist played a key role in documenting scientific and exploratory expeditions. In the eighteenth century this role grew in response to the proliferation of exploration and the Enlightenment enthusiasm for empirical research and data. Draughtsmen in this context were not considered to be practitioners of fine art; indeed, drawing in the service of science or academia historically favoured precision over personal interpretation. As European exploration increased, and the destinations proved more marvellous and exotic, the renderings of the New World were imbued with wonderment and personal references. Romanticism informed the records of the expeditions.
It is not surprising that Schmeisser looks to his European forbearers for inspiration. In music and in art, he finds sources that were familiar as a child. As a young artist he looked to the work of Albrecht Dürer saw the work of Rembrandt and admired Leonardo's drawings. In relation to his Antarctic works, it is the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and in particular his painting Das Eismeer (1824) which he first saw as a ten year old in Hamburg. The very qualities of rigour and meticulous drawing are those, which have always informed Schmeisser’s own work:
It is a moving presentation of desolation, of ice and nothing but ice – or so it seems.
The painting is built on a detailed drawing and has a rigorous composition, a meticulously ordered chaos. There is a beautiful range of colours – nowhere ‘just’ white for the snow and the ice – and there is no sunlight, just a strange luminescent ultramarine-grey sky over the scene: a highly charged silence. ‘Beredtes Schweigen’: eloquent silence.4
It is only on the closest examination of Friedrich’s masterpiece that the shipwreck is evident. The painting was most likely linked to an actual expedition of William Edward Parry in 1819-20 in search of the North West Passage, which Friedrich would have read about. Schmeisser’s curiosity takes him to obscure sources and places, where his natural sense of adventure finds wonderment and inspiration. Imagination turns danger into tragedy; the minutiae of life into symbols of hope. Schmeisser draws with a rare degree of subtlety and skill yet he imbues his work with the spiritual grandeur of a Bach fugue. He identifies with the artists who accompanied eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers whose remit was to ‘describe’ the New World, in order to find a new language for himself:
How do you go about drawing something, presenting something to a public, that you see for the first time and for which you have no frame of reference? How can the engraver back in London translate onto copper something for which there is no precedent in printmaking? The line work on the ice illustrations is very similar to the way the landscapes of the Pacific are drawn and etched in Cook’s reports; the same graphic ‘net’ is cast over the exotic lush landscapes as over the ice mountains.
Not to do that was part of the brief to myself in these works: to find different ways of holding and presenting the ice; something that showed the otherness of this place, compared with my previous themes: landscapes, monuments, figures and shells.5
The Antarctic works are sublime, TabularBerg (2001) in colour pencil, gouache, pastel and watercolour in four sheets is the most delicate evocation of nature with the resonance that one experiences when viewing a Mark Rothko painting. Hurting (2002), I Cannot Read You I and II (2001) are drawn images: fluid, abstract compositions, poetic in their brevity and understatement, yet alluding to a rich tradition that spans centuries. David Hansen describes them: “Here Schmeisser is both beyond representation and Romanticism. (He is certainly beyond Europe.) Scale and perspective are thrown overboard, the Sublime seeps quietly into and under the ice and the water, dissolving in the light of the midnight sun.”6 And Peter Haynes observes that the Antarctic works are some of the most beautiful images he has created: “They are at once about substance and fragility, mobility and stillness, intensity and evanescence. They are about the immensity of nature and the immensity of the human imagination when it confronts nature at its wildest and most enthralling. In these works a very personal, private and intensely emotional apprehension is given universal comprehension through the artist’s aesthetic intelligence”.7 Schmeisser himself cites a Japanese inspiration, the work of the sumi-e master Sesshu (1420-1502) studied in an exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum in March 2002:
I was drawn to the picture scrolls and the sliding doors mainly, and wonderful sketches, a combination of spontaneity, observation, record and interpretation. What looks initially like a finely balanced abstract composition offers some marks, which become clues: grass patches, a tree stump, a mountain-top. Having seen those marks as natural, ‘real’ things, the work now reads as a landscape with great depth. A few subtle clues are like a door through which you enter or leave the representational level of reading the work. The abstract reading conveys a sense of balance: balance of distance and closeness, light and dark, dynamism and stasis. The reduction to black and white further widens the scope for the individual observer to read the work in different ways, to fill the image with their own expectations and memories.
The faint marks can be read just like that – exquisite delicate brushstrokes – or as cloud shadows. The absence of any paint can be read as blank paper or as snow-covered landscape. The works’ black lacquered frames can be read as windows to a different world, or as sliding doors: sliding doors and sliding images that offer you an opportunity to walk in or out, to lose or find yourself. And there seems to be a connection to gardening: the most deliberate construction, if well done, appears as the most natural setting.8
For those who have known Schmeisser’s masterly etchings spanning the past thirty years, the recent drawings are exciting and powerful statements. Drawing independently in the manner employed in the Antarctic works, for such a master etcher of the German tradition requires a leap of faith. Drawing for Schmeisser has played a number of roles over his career: it is a tool with which to explore an idea, to plan a composition – it is thinking with a pencil. Drawing is therefore a tool with which to make non-verbal statements or to prepare for subsequent works. It is also an art form in its own right. For Schmeisser, drawing has also become a tool for seeing, rather than merely a record of something observed. Seeing in this context is a two-fold process – firstly, bringing an object or subject in to focus in order to capture it; secondly, in order to comprehend its reality and meaning. “That is true for what I observe and what I discover from within myself”.9
Drawing is the means by which Jörg Schmeisser attempts to capture ephemeral effects and experiences:
“I may expose myself to a situation and allow it to affect me, as well as attempt to be the ‘seismographic’ recorder of it. Sometimes, I want to seize an image, to hold it and possess it and carry it home, so to speak. Drawing is many different things to me at different times”.10
The relationship between printmaking and drawing is particularly interesting in Schmeisser’s work. It is also important in relation to the manner in which drawing has been defined within increasingly inclusive art practice in the past twenty years. Schmeisser enjoys the very closeness of drawing and printmaking within his own practice, in terms of mark -making itself, “the subtle or brutal line of the pencil in the drawing, and similarly the printed dry-point line which may come across as the shyest or as the most decisive mark. Or the litho crayon marks which may be indistinguishable from the conté lines in a drawing”.11 Generally the drawing is associated with the private, the intimate, the personal note, the unguarded, the searching for the right form. It is often unfiltered. The print however has a more public life. It has been made for public consumption and has a wider audience. You might expect a statement rather than a spontaneous note. This seeming private/public tension always intrigued him- as it must have intrigued Whistler, who while in Venice drew directly onto the copper plates.
“It was quite a breakthrough for me, the printmaker, to accept that not all needs to end up as a print. That the printed and the drawn parts can also play their distinctive roles in one image. To use both media – and more – in one work is still a new way of working for me. There will be more of this; there will be drawings; there will be prints.”.12
1. Jörg Schmeisser, ‘Artist’s Statement: Before Leaving’, Kyoto City University of Arts Museum, January 2008.
2. Peter Haynes, “Silent Truths”, Jörg Schmeisser: Breaking the Ice (works from the Antarctica 1998-2003), edited by David Hansen, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 2003, p.25.
3. Ibid, p.25.
4. Schmeisser, ‘Eloquent Silence (trying to retrace the way to Mawson)’, ibid, p. 9.
5. Ibid, p.10.
6. David Hansen, ‘Vast Difference’, ibid, p.18.
7. Haynes, op.cit., p.26.
8. Schmeisser, ibid, pp.10-11.
9. Interview, email January 2009.