Carl Schmitt’s art: “a whiff of transcendence”—by Dennis M. Helming

A longtime friend of the Foundation, Dennis M. Helming died this past May 24 in Washington, DC at the age of 75.  He was the author of numerous books, among them Footprints in the Snow: A Pictorial Biography St. Josemaría Escrivá which has been translated into many languages.  Dennis wrote the following reflection on Carl Schmitt’s life and work for the Fall 2011 the issue of the CSF News.

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Still Life, detail.

It may seem a truism but Aristotle was the first to claim our knowing proceeds from the outside in.  First, he says, we perceive in the distance a something.  As we draw closer, we make out that this thing moves on its own steam: it’s animate.  Still closer, we detect the animal is human.  And finally: “Oh, it’s Fred! He’s that tall fellow who lives down the street.”  We hasten to shake his hand.

But need we stop there?  The painter Carl Schmitt did not.  Nor did C.S. Lewis with his advice to look “inward and upward.”  In fact that’s what we all do.  With repeated contact, we get to know Fred better—his special characteristics and maybe even what makes him tick.  We go from “How come he’s there just now?” to “How come he’s there at all?”

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Pencil sketch of self-portrait of Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto), from one of Carl Schmitt’s early sketchbooks

Indeed the only thing keeping Fred from reverting to non-existence is the merest of threads—but the strongest, too.  He neither made himself nor can account for himself.  Were his Maker to stop knowing, willing, and loving Fred, he just wouldn’t be.  The same utter dependence applies to all creatures, visible and invisible.  There we have the most radical truth of each component of this teeming universe.  And since there is no divine need to make us, we find no purpose in any of it except God’s delight and his desire to share that delight with us.

Yes, the Creator dotes over his handiwork, even as He invites us to the same table.  “Be still and see,” says the psalmist.  To plow ahead blithely with nary a thought for one’s origin and destiny is a sure­fire path to confusion and non-fulfillment.  If we don’t stop and ask what or why a thing is, but merely what it can do for us, our utilitarian self-interest crowds out any possible wonder.  To wonder is our birthright—and a gentle invitation.  Responding to it opens us up to all the greatness and beauty to be found in our world and in the profligate Creator behind it all.

Some are gifted to sustain that wonder despite the hits and misses we all experience.  It’s that full, astonishing reality of life itself in all its layers that the philosopher, the saint, and the artist are called upon to echo.  The fact is that many are called, but few are chosen.

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Red Madonna, oil on aluminum, c. 1935, 20 x 18 in.

The painter Carl Schmitt was among the latter.  He embraced that call with an artist’s passion for beauty.  Art is about life, and he committed himself to contemplating it in its fullness and to putting what he saw into his paintings.  Rather than prostitute himself by churning out “pretty” pictures or whatever might sell, he’d rather go hungry.  In his long life, he filled hundreds of canvases and far more pages of his note-books, always probing, always experimenting.  He was not only a student of the arts, but also a very wise man, perhaps even a prophet—and no mean painter.

For him, art was always more than capturing nature in its glory as seen in light and color.  There’s hidden drama in every life—in Fred’s and certainly in Schmitt’s, which was no easy one at all.  He spent decades working out how the shadows and dark voids work in relation to light and color—to set forth how life itself triumphs even over death.  This was the deeper glory he sought in all his work—that “final kick of beauty” that we find especially in his later paintings.  He has shown us how even a teapot in a still life can convey a whiff of transcendence.

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Still Life, oil on canvas, c. 1973, 24 x 20 in.

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3 thoughts on “Carl Schmitt’s art: “a whiff of transcendence”—by Dennis M. Helming

  1. I remember the experiments with the paintings. When I was little I remember visiting and my sister and I went into the back room that was always cold to play the piano. I can still remember about 5 paintings that were identical except they were all done in different colors. I remember stopping and looking at them because they were all identical yet different. They may have been sunsets from what I can recall. It’s amazing the amount of work, time and effort that would have gone into an experiment of Grandpop’s.

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