In my last post I spoke about Carl Schmitt’s “secret,” seeing his life as a gift received and given. This gift took concrete form in his work as an artist.
Schmitt saw his art as an embodiment of what he called a “vision” of life and reality. This “vision” came to him in his 30s when he was struggling to support his wife and six children solely through art. He saw it as the path he had to pursue if he was to aspire to greatness as an artist.
Schmitt’s vision saw art and life in three stages or “planes”: the lyric, the epic and the dramatic. The lyric was the first encounter with reality–the perception of a child who sees the world bathed in light. In art, this is expressed in “flat” designs, permeated with light and free of shadows.
As the child grows and into adulthood, shadows and conflict appear–he must reconcile himself to things outside of himself that challenge his first innocence. One can see this “epic” stage in paintings where the light comes from without, casting shadows and nuance upon the objects depicted.
Finally, the tensions of the epic give to way to an integration of the first two stages in the “dramatic” plane. Here the light seems to come from within the persons and objects in the painting. At the same time the dark “voids” provide an image of the price paid for this integration.
This is a tremendous vision of the whole of life: that our completion as human beings comes only after a struggle to bring together all our experiences–including our suffering–into a complete personality. A full human being is not meant to lose his childlike joy in life, nor can he ignore what the world has to teach him. But these things must be purged and redeemed through what he called the “voids” into a fully mature character.
He was convinced that any artist aspiring above the mediocre had to let himself experience these “voids.” But the artistic fruit of this suffering, this maturity as an artist and as a person, was precious. Schmitt called it “Form.”
“Form” is that elusive yet substantial quality you sense on viewing his best paintings. He strove for nothing less than the splendid presentation of the full reality or “substance” of things in his art. As he put it, “A work of art is mature–complete–when it lives and appears real.”
In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my sense of reality is heightened by an encounter with great art such as that of Carl Schmitt. This is how he put it in his paradoxical way: “Nothing should be painted that cannot be excelled in the painting. That is, be more real.”
This was not abstract theory, but the way he lived his life and pursued his art. “Form” was not just an “idea,” but was intimately connected with art and life. It could be put on canvas only by an artist striving to live and develop his personality to its full human potential, a struggle involving hardship and suffering. Living and working in obscurity in the darkest days of the Second World War, with several of his sons fighting overseas, he expressed it this way: “There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”
As we explore Schmitt’s life, it will become evident that he knew of what he wrote. The greatness of his art is the fruit of his own struggle to see reality in the purest possible light. In his own words: “Personality is the potential of form.”
This is not say that Carl Schmitt was in any way a cheerless figure or that his life was little more than a series of grim struggles. Those who knew him say that he had a marked effect on everyone he came in contact with. He was serious about life but never dour or depressed, exacting with himself but courteous and understanding with everyone from miserly businessmen to his own small children. He showed a remarkable consistency and depth of character throughout his long life. Most of all he was quietly passionate about his art and devoted his whole self to realizing his extraordinary talents to the full, to fulfill his mature personality, his complete “form.”