Woman and Guardian Angel: Sculpture “in the lowest relief”

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Woman and Guardian Angel, 1925, oil on canvas on board, 30 x 25 in.

This warm and inviting painting, one of the most beguiling of Carl Schmitt’s “tapestry” style, was the result of many months of toil in the cold winter of 1924-25.  Schmitt first mentions it his journal in early November, when he was busy at what would become one of his largest works, the mural Nativity, measuring 10 by 6 feet.  The two works now hang side by side in the Foundation’s studio-gallery in Silvermine.

After announcing “Good-bye to studio ’till 1925” on December 23, Schmitt was back at it three days after Christmas.  By the end of the month conditions were becoming desperate: “Slept rather cold in the studio last night.  I had three bathrobes and two overcoats over me. I found the bottle of milk frozen (which was by the bed) this morning.  I kept the fire roaring and worked continuously on the Guardian Angel all day.”  A week into the new year saw a milestone of sorts: “I worked on the ‘Woman and Angel’ and completed it (at least for the time being).”

Of course, the artist worked the painting over in the next few weeks, and in fact considered it only in its first stages.  “I swung the ‘Woman and Angel’ into the beginning of a picture today,” he reported on January 9.  Schmitt goes on to reveal the fruit of his long labors, both with the brush and in thought.  “I am slowly learning the place of form in painting.  Sculpture is prefigured only in painting.…cf. Cezanne at the end of his labor: ‘Painting is not sculpture.’ One might add ‘But it prefigures it, apprehends it in the lowest relief.’”

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A friend of the CSF admires Woman and Guardian Angel, one of three works given to the Foundation in 2013.  It is shown here in a frame by Carl’s brother Robert.  The artist’s large canvas, Nativity, done at the same time, hangs in the background.

If the great nineteenth-century painter Paul Cezanne, whom Schmitt admired for his dedication to form in painting, seemed disappointed that his art could not reach the level of sculpture, Schmitt seems determined to compensate for this loss.  One sees in this painting the solid masses and bold forms of sculpture, but with the jewel-like colors that can be realized only in paint.

The forms themselves also display a flexibility that stone or bronze could not easily withstand: witness the arm of the woman intertwined with that of the angel.  Here the demands of three-dimensional form—not to mention the anatomy of the figures—bow to the overall design of the painting.

It is not clear when the work was finally completed, since it was not exhibited in the artist’s lifetime.  In 1932, the painting was bought by John Kenneth Byard, a longtime patron and friend of Schmitt.  Byard gave it to his brother Dever, who passed it on to his son, and so on to his daughter, who gave it to the Foundation in 2013.

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This article appeared originally in the May 2014 issue of Vision, the CSF e-newsletter.  If you would like to receive Vision in your inbox, you may subscribe here.

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—Suffering reveals form

“It must be recalled to mind, especially today when Form is almost unknown (Form in its metaphysical—Form in its aesthetic sense) that true Form cannot be rediscovered except by mean of destruction.  There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”
—from the essay “The Critic” (1943)

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Immanent Trinity Decoration, 1924, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
The Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, Wernersville, Pennsylvania

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The creative genius of Rome

“The teaching, well-nigh universal today, that the Romans were a non-creative war-like people who did nothing culturally but pass on the culture of the Orient and Greece is utterly false.  Quite the opposite in fact is true.  The Romans were the most creative people in history and moreover were creative in that one field which is the most fundamental: that is in Form.  Not until Rome formed them had the world ever heard of the Fine Arts. . . . The Art, the Fine Art of Architecture did not appear until the creative genius of Rome brought it into being.  The poetry of interior space with shadow had to be revealed in the Pantheon the baths and the basilicas of Rome before the paradox of the Fine Arts was proclaimed.”
(c. 1956)

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Palace of Septimius Severus, Rome, pastel and wash on paper, 14 x 17 in., dated May 16, 1935.

Mysticism on Mondays—The mystical virtues

“The thesis then is that a living experience of the graces of meekness, poverty of spirit, and temperance is necessary for the quickening of a sense of beauty.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1922

As we have seen, Carl Schmitt saw the mystical life as a direct parallel to the aesthetic life.  As a kind of “natural religion,” artistic creation demands “virtue.”  “Art is natural religion and its ‘mysticism,’ while paralleling true mysticism, is natural and created.”  As with the religious mystic, the “natural mystic” must cultivate in his own way what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of temperance, poverty of spirit, and meekness—also referred to as purity, poverty, and humility—if he is to realize his full creative potential. 

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St. Paul the Hermit (Purity and Poverty), oil on canvas,1922, 25 x 30 in.

Purity, Poverty, and Humility are a triad of virtues with deep roots in the mystical tradition.  They are the basis of the “evangelical counsels” of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, most familiar to us as the vows of monastic life.  They in turn counter the vices of avarice, lust, and pride—the principal temptations of the world, flesh, and the devil as given in Scripture.  Schmitt sometimes called these by more contemporary names: pleasure, money, and power; Comfort, Wealth, and Success.

Just as art is not an ethical exercise, Schmitt is very clear that the aesthetic virtues, while finding a parallel in the moral life, are not moral in themselves: they do not perfect man as man.  They in no way take the place of the moral life, and in fact are subordinated to it.  As Schmitt wrote in 1924, “A life toward humility, poverty, and purity is worth much more than one devoted to form and space and quality.”

Nevertheless, these virtues are not divorced from the aesthetic life; indeed, they are essential to it.  Schmitt saw “humility, poverty, and purity” as directly linked with “form, space and quality,” these last three delineating the dramatic, epic, and lyric stages of the imagination, respectively.

From seeing merely the appearances or the “quality” of things (the lyric stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in “space” (the epic), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their “form” (the dramatic vision).

As in the mystical life, the first virtue to be cultivated is purity of heart, corresponding in the life of the artist to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is the cultivation of that vision which sees things in their full outward “quality”; as Schmitt puts it: “purity of heart is especially necessary to quality.”

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Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

The artist, however, cannot avoid grappling with what Schmitt called “status”: his relation to the world and its standards—security, influence, fame— which can be boiled down to one thing: money.  In the present world Schmitt saw the pursuit of money (and all that goes with it) as the greatest threat to the integrity of the artist.

It was not a matter of the artist chasing after celebrity or a life of luxury, nor of living “in poverty” with no means at his disposal.  As Schmitt put it simply: “artists are often heard to say that they will do pot-boilers until they have accumulated sufficient money to enable them to paint ‘as they want to.’  Well, they never do.”  The artist must choose first to paint as he wants to—to “paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”  The vision of the artist, to paint “as he sees,” depends on the purification of all the other powers of his soul.

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Café Cetinje, oil on canvas, c. 1931, 30 x 25 in.

The artist then realizes that the struggle does not deal so much with things outside of himself, but is one within.  He must develop his own personality to full maturity.  He comes to the realization that the art he creates is only as great as his struggle to achieve this “personality,” which he called “the potential of form.”

Schmitt sketched the panorama of this journey to “personality” in terms of man’s threefold life as family, society, and person.  “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people.  This is invariably in order to acquire the confidence necessary to perseverance in life.  Very few identify with themselves.  For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil.”

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Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1960, 18 x 15 in.

It is in this arena of “subjection”or “servitude” to God or the devil—pride or humility—that the true battle lies.  “The truth is that the issue between wealth and poverty can never be resolved in this world (any more than any moral issue can be resolved here),” Schmitt wrote in 1938.  “They must both be swept aside when they have played themselves out in favor of the new order—they must give way for the new act with a new hero: Humility, and a new villain: Pride.”

Although Schmitt was writing in the context of a decisive moment in the history of the last century, the phenomenon he describes applies first of all to the individual person.  Schmitt wrote eloquently of the battle to subject himself to God, going so far as to say, “I am happy only in this servitude.”

The role of the artist in this struggle, however, is not principally on the moral level, as it is with the saint.  Not that the artist himself is not called to virtue, indeed to sainthood.  It is only that his witness, unlike that of the saint, lies in the realm of the symbol.

In an essay from 1935, “Hope for the Future of Art,” Schmitt outlined the artist’s task in this “symbolic story“: “I make bold to say that the reality (on which the symbolic art feeds) is simply the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices individual or collective of man historical.  The artistic vocation in the painter lies essentially in the faculty of standing aside and, as objectively as possible, setting in symbols the high intensity of this very real war.”

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Adam and Eve, oil on board, c. 1931, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Where does beauty come into this “war”?  “Peace, like Beauty, cannot be the principal aim—cannot be directly striven for,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “Such neutralities are the result of safeguarding activities, beauty being a by-product of life.”  While beauty, and indeed the creative powers of the artist, remain “neutralities” in this conflict, they are nonetheless caught up in “the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices.”  Schmitt vividly portrays this “pageant” in a poem from 1925:

I dream of a world magnificent
Teeming with realities:
Reality of virtue, Reality of vice,
And Reality of Beauty:
God, the Devil and Beauty.
I remember and hope for such a world. . . .

Carl Schmitt’s vision

In my last post I spoke about Carl Schmitt’s “secret,” seeing his life as a gift received and given. This gift took concrete form in his work as an artist.

Schmitt saw his art as an embodiment of what he called a “vision” of life and reality. This “vision” came to him in his 30s when he was struggling to support his wife and six children solely through art.  He saw it as the path he had to pursue if he was to aspire to greatness as an artist.

Schmitt’s vision saw art and life in three stages or “planes”: the lyric, the epic and the dramatic.  The lyric was the first encounter with reality–the perception of a child who sees the world bathed in light.  In art, this is expressed in “flat” designs, permeated with light and free of shadows.

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Madonna and Child, oil on hardboard, c. 1922

As the child grows and into adulthood, shadows and conflict appear–he must reconcile himself to things outside of himself that challenge his first innocence.  One can see this “epic” stage in paintings where the light comes from without, casting shadows and nuance upon the objects depicted.

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Red Madonna, oil on aluminum, c. 1935

Finally, the tensions of the epic give to way to an integration of the first two stages in the “dramatic” plane.  Here the light seems to come from within the persons and objects in the painting. At the same time the dark “voids” provide an image of the price paid for this integration.

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Blue Madonna, oil on canvas, c. 1950

This is a tremendous vision of the whole of life: that our completion as human beings comes only after a struggle to bring together all our experiences–including our suffering–into a complete personality.  A full human being is not meant to lose his childlike joy in life, nor can he ignore what the world has to teach him.  But these things must be purged and redeemed through what he called the “voids” into a fully mature character.

He was convinced that any artist aspiring above the mediocre had to let himself experience these “voids.”  But the artistic fruit of this suffering, this maturity as an artist and as a person, was precious. Schmitt called it “Form.”

“Form” is that elusive yet substantial quality you sense on viewing his best paintings. He strove for nothing less than the splendid presentation of the full reality or “substance” of things in his art. As he put it, “A work of art is mature–complete–when it lives and appears real.”

In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my sense of reality is heightened by an encounter with great art such as that of Carl Schmitt. This is how he put it in his paradoxical way: “Nothing should be painted that cannot be excelled in the painting. That is, be more real.”

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Still Life, oil on hardboard, 1942

This was not abstract theory, but the way he lived his life and pursued his art.  “Form” was not just an “idea,” but was intimately connected with art and life. It could be put on canvas only by an artist striving to live and develop his personality to its full human potential, a struggle involving hardship and suffering.  Living and working in obscurity in the darkest days of the Second World War, with several of his sons fighting overseas, he expressed it this way: “There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”

As we explore Schmitt’s life, it will become evident that he knew of what he wrote.  The greatness of his art is the fruit of his own struggle to see reality in the purest possible light. In his own words: “Personality is the potential of form.”

This is not say that Carl Schmitt was in any way a cheerless figure or that his life was little more than a series of grim struggles.  Those who knew him say that he had a marked effect on everyone he came in contact with.  He was serious about life but never dour or depressed, exacting with himself but courteous and understanding with everyone from miserly businessmen to his own small children.  He showed a remarkable consistency and depth of character throughout his long life.  Most of all he was quietly passionate about his art and devoted his whole self to realizing his extraordinary talents to the full, to fulfill his mature personality, his complete “form.”

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Still Life, detail