Until his death in 1978, Henry Schaefer-Simmern, a
distinguished art educator and the author of
The Unfolding of Artistic Activity and The Essence
of the Artistic Form, studied children's untutored
drawings and works of primitive and prehistoric art, in
a search for the principles of that visual conceiving
which most vitally affect artistic activity.
Kerwin Whitnah took over Schaefer-Simmern's children's school in Berkeley
Henry Schaefer-Simmern, when I first met him, was a large and imposing person of obviously high intelligence. But, when I got to know him I discovered that his bright intelligence was always in service to a more demanding power -- namely, a passion for the artistic form, and how to make it and how best to teach it to others. This, of course, was an unusual passion to find anywhere in this age when art is among the lowest values at the bottom of a mutifarious agenda, largely devoted to scientific materialism. Schaefer-Simmern well knew that the odds were against him. Nevertheless, knowing surely how high the stakes were, he taught with a sure hand, an unfailing enthusiasm, and a deep love for his subject matter.
He was then, if you accepted his thesis that we are all created creative, someone to trust. Or, as they used to say in the late 19th century on the Nevada frontier: "He was a man to ride the river with!"
He was not interested in promiscuous praise, either for himself or for others, but only in the Truth of the Artistic Form, wherever that might lead. Shortly after he arrived in the United States as a refugee from the Frankfurt Gestapo ("Every time I heard the word 'culture' I reach for my revolver!", he said, remembering that time), he had a long and promising interview with a faculty member at a large U.S. university. After the interview was over and his host had indicated good auguries for a future association, Schaefer-Simmern said: "I have really enjoyed meeting with and talking to you. But there is only one problem --"
"Oh", said his host, "What is that?" To which Schaefer-Simmern answered gently, but conclusively: "You don't know anything about art!" Quite naturally, he did not get the job. Shortly afterwards, his book, "The Unfolding of Artistic Activity", was published by the University of California Press. And at that point he was hired by the University of California in Berkeley. In 1949, wishing to expand his teaching work in a way not possible at U.C. Berkeley, he opened his own school, The Institute of Art Education, and soon had almost more students than he could handle, including children.
He was not a hail fellow, well-met or someone who practised: "You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours" but rather one who believed that integrity, truth and hard work were indivisible monitors of quality in a work of art. So his teaching classes were not filled with encomiums of praise. Quite the contrary, you could be with him a long time and if you "got" his message and really put it into practice he might say occasionally: "Oh, I see you are beginning to understand." Which, if you knew him, would be high praise indeed!
I had been associated with him since 1949 when I became a student in his Laymen's Class in "The Unfolding of Artistic Activity". Often I would drive him to St. Mary's College where he was giving a course, and I was also able to set up a very extended and successful lecture series at U.C. Berkeley. And I also began to help him by teaching some of his children's classes. Teaching in San Francisco, St. Mary 's and Berkeley, he was definitely overloaded and unable to travel much to Europe, which was necessary for his ongoing research. In 1965 he announced in the Laymen's Class that he would have to close the children's school, simply because he couldn't accomplish his important book, "The Essence of the Artistic Form," on top of other activities. So I offered to take over the children's class completely and also do whatever was necessary for the layman's course. He then, would be free to travel to Europe, continue research, and finish his writing. He accepted this and so I took over the children's class -- and it did not close.
At this point, I also confessed to him that I was beginning to understand as never before what the real meaning of his work was all about. Working at his desk, he looked up abruptly and said: "Good you say so!" Now we can really begin!"
At about this time I began to work on The Voyage. I told him nothing about this project, simply because I wanted to present him with a finished picture, and not with a problematic fragment. Because my wife was mortally ill and I had a 3-year old son to take care of, it took me about three years, working nights, to complete the painting. When it was finished, I invited Schaefer-Simmern to my house for breakfast. He came, and before we sat down at the table, I uncovered the finished work for him. He stood quietly before it for about a half an hour, then asked me a few questions as to details, and spoke about "how I could make it better" and then, before we had breakfast said simply: "I see." After this, he again went on a trip to Europe to see the art of Pompei and Herculaneum and other early work in central Italy. When he returned from this tour he would (as he put it) "overlook" the classes. This time he was in a particularly good mood. He liked what he saw at Pompei and Herculaneum and he also liked what our students were doing in Berkeley. And a few weeks later he said to me casually: "You do a big painting like that, you can take your place with the Etruscan painters." A very low-key statement, delivered undramatically, but it made my day! And I also knew that without his inspired teaching on "The Unfolding of Artistic Activity", I could not have accomplished it.