“The hardest thing to understand in a democratic period is that there can be no individual leadership. Democracy means that the class which is strongest leads, not the individual; the ‘leader’ is simply a symbol of that class. Especially is this true in our present phase of Democracy, Bourgeois rule. That man can only ‘lead’ who is most completely the follower of the people.” (c. 1933)
Carl Schmitt’s one-man show at the prestigious Philadelphia Art Alliance in March, 1930, came at a crossroads in his career. At the time the artist was moving away from his signature “tapestry” style into more religious and “mystical” themes. Many of the paintings display an experimental, even unsure hand, venturing into imaginative realms not explored by the artist before and rarely visited in later work. This bold move, while attracting favorable critical attention, followed the old pattern and did not help his lackluster sales, but demonstrates once again Schmitt’s commitment to the demands of his art in the face of economic pressures. Of course, the recent market crash made misers of even the wealthiest patrons, and the show failed to yield a single sale, although a few of the paintings would find buyers in the subsequent months. (Some remain lost to this day.)
The following two reviews are typical of the ones Schmitt received in this period. The critics are clearly fascinated with his work. Here is a painter they can’t quite pin down: is he a realist or idealist? Traditionalist or individualist? His approach is decidedly contemporary, yet he seems impervious to any particular modern influence. While many pointed to the old Italian masters as the main source of his inspiration, others identify Byzantine art or peasant and primitive influences. The headline to one review neatly summed up the critics’ response: “Old but New.”
While noting his use of color, his unusual imagination, and the lively rhythm and patterns in his canvasses, the critics fail to put their finger on Schmitt’s overall purpose and approach. At a basic level, they confess confusion with Schmitt’s claim to be a “realist” when so many of his works strike the eye as purely imaginative, even fanciful. One critic came near to Schmitt’s understanding when he described him as a painter who uses “the language of the inner eye.” Schmitt explained himself to the critics: “Several people have complained that they cannot understand my pictures and have asked if I would explain them. This lack of understanding never fails to surprise me, as I try to paint only what I see as exactly and clearly as possible. I think pictures are meant to be looked at. If there is a secret—the eye must comprehend it.”
“In the members’ room of the Art Alliance hangs a small collection of paintings by Carl Schmitt, an artist with a distinctly individualistic manner of looking at things. Mr. Schmitt’s own theory regarding his methods is: “I try to paint only what I see as exactly and as clearly as possible.” This sounds like the creed of a confirmed realist, but this artist is nothing of the sort. He is an idealist with a peculiar sense of color, given to religious subjects and apparently influenced by early Italian art.
“His pictures at the Art Alliance are mostly religious in subject matter. His ‘Trinity: Decoration‘—why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person, on the cross surrounded by angels—is almost Byzantine in feeling and very ornamental. In it the color scheme is restrained, harmonious and satisfactory. In others of his sacred group he contrasts magenta and light green in a way to put one’s teeth on edge.
“His ‘Picnic’ differs entirely from these other pictures. In it he shows a very modern group dining al fresco against a highly conventionalized landscape background, the general treatment reminding one of a modernized Botticelli. The whole is very amusing and effective, a joyous little canvas.”
—”Individualism of Carl Schmitt,” Philadelphia Record, March 2, 1930
“The art of Carl Schmitt, as seen in his one-man show at the Art Alliance, is the vivid expression of a highly individual and imaginative personality.
“Only one of the compositions, a small portrait sketch, is primarily realistic. The emotional tempo of the artist seeks rather the realm of pure fancy, developing unusual color combinations and richly decorative compositions not unlike, in pigmental and design emphasis, the peasant art expressions of primitive peoples.
“Schmitt covers every inch of space with color and design interest. He is especially sensitive to colors. In one composition which he titles ‘Gethsemane’ the moving folds of robes, of hills and sky are further intensified by the weird olive green and greenish-yellow pigmentation.
“Something of the design quality of peasant embroidery enters into the colors and pattern weaving of a highly imaginative Crucifixion, while, in the various imaginative compositions based upon the theme of the Annunciation, Schmitt combines the unusual in pigmentation with a certain basic purity of conception, lending to the figures portrayed the charm of the naïve.
“Those who consider Carl Schmitt’s art from an unrealistic viewpoint will find it eccentric. His figures often give the impression of brownish jointed wooden dolls. As figures they are disappointing, but when considered as part of a larger rhythm, part of a moving pattern, they achieve a fuller meaning.
“The charm of Schmitt’s art lies in the richness of his imagination, its design quality, and its individual choice of pigments. Coupled with this is an emotional reaction that never sinks to the level of the decadent.”
—Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1930