Wisdom on Wednesdays—Grateful as a beggar

“My philosophy may be summed up thus:
“First, to receive from God gratefully everything possible that I can get.
“Second, to give back to God through my neighbor everything which I can give.
“To give gifts to my neighbor I must use art, because a gift must be made—
hence I must be an artist.
“The world of doing, the wage, is outside my world of beggars and gifts,
because I believe that God gives me my energy.  I cannot earn it.
I can only be grateful as a beggar and share as a beggar would.”
(1933)

Gum arabic print for a magazine article on Thanksgiving, 1930s.

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The artist “explains” his work

“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.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1930

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The Second Night, 1929, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
Present location unknown.

Carl Schmitt was adamant that a painting does not need any “explanation”—one simply had to “look at it.”  For him, the “eye” of the viewer was the only adequate vehicle for the vision conveyed by the artist.

Yet a number of Schmitt’s paintings seem to cry out for some interpretation.  Enigmatic titles such as Esto Perpetua,Muses Marooned, and Purity and Poverty only add to the mystery.

Schmitt’s The Second Night was one such painting.  As the artist’s most successful work up to that time, it was inevitable that people wondered about the significance of the title as well as the “meaning” behind the figures in the painting.  The secretary to the Director of the Art Museum in St. Louis, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1930, wrote to Schmitt to ask “unofficially” “why you entitled your painting ‘The Second Night.’”  In his typically accommodating fashion, Schmitt responded a few days later with a beautiful handwritten letter.

CFS letter to St Louis Art Museum - 7 Oct 1930 - CROPPED

As the archivist here at the CSF, the most enjoyable part of my work is seeking out lost items: artwork, photos, and the “other half” of Carl Schmitt’s extensive correspondence. I tracked this letter to the St. Louis Art Museum, where the archivists graciously sent along the “lost half” of this exchange.

Dear Miss Herlage,
Thank you very much for your inquiry. I am sorry that my title has caused difficulties – many people have asked what it was all about. I hardly know what to say. As you infer the ultimate object of painting is vision. Still an idea (or common experience) is necessary to a picture, if not of the first importance. “The Second Night” is the sixth of a cycle of seven paintings which are a mystical succession. As I am reluctant to inflict mystical implications upon what is largely an extroverted public, I thot it best only to imply thro the title the idea of the “second night of the soul” and to allow the beholder to make his own story. I trust that this in a measure will explain!

Very sincerely
Carl Schmitt

This is the only time Schmitt mentions any “mystical succession” of his paintings, so it is unclear which works might fall into this category.

What Schmitt does make clear is that the title of the painting refers to “the second night of the soul,” an unmistakable allusion to the classical mystical tradition of St. John of the Cross.  In St. John’s understanding, the soul must pass through two “dark nights“ in order to reach full union with God.  The first, the “night of the senses,” purges the soul of all affection for earthy things. In the second, far more painful trial, God purges the soul of all remaining attachments, even those to its own will and judgment.

Muses Marooned [1] [13104] A

Muses Marooned, 1934, oil on canvas, 41 x 35 in.
One in a series of “muse” paintings (“The Muses Disagree,” “Muses on the Mount,” “Muses in the Valley,” “The Holy Spirit and the Muse”) that the artist worked on through the 1920s and into the 1930s. Another version of this painting was executed the following year.
This painting was put up for auction in 2010,
Muses in the Valley in 2011.

Seen in this light, the painting may depict the intense anguish of the soul—portrayed in traditional fashion as a woman—as she submits to the promptings of the One who urges us to become “like little children” if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.  The barren landscape and mountainous crags, so different from the artists usual frondescence, heightens the anguish of the woman’s face and contorted movement as she struggles to gain a foothold on the uneven ground.  Only the Little Child stands erect.

The painting may also portray, as Schmitt’s letter suggests, a more personal “story.”  Schmitt speaks of his own “night” in the journal he kept during a busy winter early in his marriage.  Enjoying a respite from an extraordinary period of financial and artistic strain in the fall of 1924, the artist reflected, “We should thank God for all difficulties of merely getting over the mountain. But the vista after it’s over is unimagined in the night and the rocks. . . depression is the absence of Love.  Everyone must be a lover to live.”

Schmitt’s own trial opened to him a vista—a vision—”unimagined in the night.”  It remained for him to embody that vision in his art.

Temples Unfinished - Peace - Gift of Fruit

Three paintings that may have formed part of the “mystical succession” Schmitt mentions in his letter: Temples Unfinished (1921), Peace (1923), and A Gift of Fruit (1926). With the exception of Peace, the present location of these works is unknown.

Reprinted from Vision, the CSF e-newsletter, February 2014. For past issues or to subscribe, please click here.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—A passion for the permanence of matter

“Religion today is often nothing more than a concept.
“Hence the seeming dichotomy between religion and beauty.
“For the artist has an instinct for material absolutes: he has a passion for the permanence of matter which the philosopher, in his specialization, seems to ignore.  Hence, a Roman Paganism seems necessary to balance the Greco-Jewish religion which tends either to Gnosticism, or concepts, or both, avoiding the Incarnation and death of a God-man.”  (1952)

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Madonna Against a Hillside, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Christian hope and the artist’s sanity

“To come as near despair as possible without losing hope—that is the aim of a Christian.
“To come as near madness as possible without losing sanity—(that is, to be as fanatical as possible without losing idiocy) is the aim of an artist.”  (1932)

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St. Paul the Hermit, oil on canvas, c. 1922, 30 x 25 in. (Private collection)
Schmitt’s depiction of St. Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) being fed miraculously by a raven was probably inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish artist Velázquez.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.
A version of this painting in brighter colors is part of the Carl Schmitt Foundation’s collection.

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.