“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

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Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

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.

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Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

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.

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Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

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.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—Complete economic slavery

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Three Children with Toys, c. 1926, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.

“We are loath to accept the logical progression into complete economic slavery, but we should be realistic enough to acknowledge that once we have allowed ourselves to succumb to an economic culture, we must see it through to the end.”  (1962)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The arts as fundamental

The idea that a work of art is something to be used as an embellishment and its possession is the mark of a cultured person (provided the work of art is in style) and nothing else, is the mark of decay in European society.
“The fact of the matter is that the arts are as fundamental to the material life of man as the sacraments are to his spiritual.  As the sacraments fail, so do the arts.”  (1943)

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Still Life with Banana, c. 1975, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.

Fine Arts on Fridays—the arts as “the sacraments of a natural religion”

Today we begin a new series, Fine Arts on Fridays.  

The fine arts were central to Carl Schmitt’s life and thought, and provided a touchstone not only for his aesthetics, but his ideas on religion, culture, and history, among other topics.  We will explore Schmitt’s understanding of the fine arts in general and those realities closely related to them: the imagination, intuition, and the creative process and aesthetic life of the artist himself.  The series will also include reflections on the artist’s thinking on each of the fine arts, their relationship to each other and to the family, society, and the person.   

For Schmitt, the fine arts were defined by their metaphysical import, as the “symbolic expressions of spiritual realities.”  He went so far as to portray them “in a way the sacraments of a natural religion,” “the means of grace for the natural man.”  

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Study for Reclining Woman, pastel on paper, 13 x 16 in.

The significance of the fine arts was not limited to the individual, however, but served to express the culture of peoples.  Indeed, in Schmitt’s mind, the vigor of the fine arts were a principal—if not the principal—means by which the health of a civilization could be measured.  In Schmitt’s words, “there exists not a better barometer of the spiritual life of a people than their arts.” 

This was the seminal idea of Schmitt’s most sustained effort in explaining his thought, Europe and the Arts.  Here the arts are treated as the “symbols of a vital spiritual life” not only of individuals but of entire peoples and countries.  Each European country or region serves as a “custodian” of one of the seven fine arts, which art expressed in a particular way that country’s genius and culture.         

Schmitt’s latest manuscript of the work dates from the 1940s.  The book, however, incorporates ideas going back twenty years or more and can be seen as a kind of summation of his thought on the arts.  Although friends encouraged Schmitt to finish and publish the book, it remained incomplete at his death.

After a brief introduction, the first chapter of the essay defines the fine arts in contrast to the practical arts, and defends seven as their traditional number. The opening of the essay appears below.

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Reclining Woman, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Those forms made by man, which have survived the ages, have been the expression, or symbols of a vital spiritual life. Wherever religion has been vigorous, permanent forms have resulted. These symbolic forms range from the most absolute, i.e. the fine-arts, down to the most utilitarian or practical i.e. the so-called crafts. . . .

They have generally been accepted as seven in number, and are listed as follows: Music, Literature, the Dance, the Drama, Sculpture, Architecture and Painting.

There have been various attempts to enlarge or reduce this number. For example, some critics at various times have attempted to limit the number to exclude the Dance or the Drama.  These attempts may be due to the fact that these two arts are possibly not fully developed.  We shall consider the question of their immaturity later.  On the other hand, the number has been stretched by others in order to include say, moving and talking pictures; but anyone with an understanding of the fine-arts will immediately grasp the fact that the “movie” (or “talkie”) is a hybridization of several of the arts, at least in its technical aspect and is more to be considered as a science than as an art.  The moving picture is, in fact, a means for recording the dramatic art in much the same way that the radio-phonograph is of recording the musical art.

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Study for Woman in Irish Coat, pastel on paper, April 1933, 12 x 9 in.

Finally there are always those who will deny that there is such a thing as a fine-art as distinguished from a useful art.  It is not within the scope of this essay to go into this question, beyond saying that it is addressed to those who recognize the validity of metaphysical reality.  It is assumed that the arts are not always primarily utilitarian, or as it is called “functional,” in their aim, but that they at times, on the contrary, indicate by the symbolism of their imaginative vision a more profound spiritual life.  Beethoven and Rembrandt for example, besides being excellent craftsmen were fine-artists of the greatest vision; and the aim of Michelangelo, needless to say, was not primarily utilitarian.

Assuming then that there are seven fine-arts, which record or reflect as many facets of imaginative life, let us attempt to characterize them briefly observing the qualities peculiar to each, as well as their unity in an organic whole.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1933, 25 x 30 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Religion the vital force

“The Fine Arts serve to recall us to the fact that mystical religion is the vital force most deeply embedded in man, from which springs all his notable activity.
“They seem to show most clearly [that] when religion departs from this central vitality, no matter how active the science of religion, if this central core of Being is deserted the Fine Arts tend to wither and die.
“So, it may truly be said, that a culture flourishes whenever religion flourishes in its true and full sense.”
“The Value of the Fine Arts” (March 1943)

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St. Katharine, oil on canvas, 1922, 30 x 25 in.