A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.
Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941. The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East. The exhibition itself featured paintings showing a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.
I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge. His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms. He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery. The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.
The “comment” in the painting can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych. But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not. Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money. This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.
Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs. But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person. In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends. The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.
This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation. Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way. Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses. For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”
Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty. If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.