Wisdom on Wednesdays—The balanced human

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Michael, c. 1942, oil on canvas, 23 x 19 in.

“The human, the balanced human, believes that the mystery of birth, death, and life is master of science: that science is a means.  The Liberal believes that science is the master of all; the human knows that it is simply a matter of time till the substance of life absorbs the means.  Temporarily the means has gotten out of hand.”  (1958)

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“Just look at it!”: St. Paul the Hermit (1922)

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St. Paul the Hermit and Allegorical Figure with a Rose, 1922, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

I once asked my father what that “allegorical figure with a rose” was.  His answer: “Just look at it.”  He never explained his paintings: he wanted others simply to enjoy them, to look with their own eyes.

The holy figure on the left was clear.  And since my father often coupled the pursuit of the good with the pursuit of beauty, I thought the mysterious figure on the right might stand for beauty, or possibly the arts.

It was only many years later that my father said something that showed me there is far more to this painting.  “There are two things you don’t fully realize until you’re eighty.  The first is how beautiful everything is, and the second is how passing it all is—all just nothing.”  Instead of facile explanations, his words put before me the mystery of beauty.  That’s what he wanted us to see and to enjoy.

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While we may not be artists, beauty is not foreign to us.  We are all drawn to beauty of a rose and pause to enjoy a rainbow or a sunset.  And when our attraction to someone or something beautiful turns to love, our love increases as we get to know that person or thing better, and we enjoy that, too.  Beauty is our birthright.

Enjoyment connects beauty with the good, and it increases as we get to know the truth of things.  Enjoyment always accompanies our growth in the knowledge and love of that which is truly good: to see more deeply into reality in this way is to enjoy it—and experience it as beautiful.

It is the good, the true, and the beautiful that connect the two figures in this painting.  The saint on the left, pursuing the good, is inseparable from the figure that represents the mystery of beauty.  Truth, goodness, and enjoyment of beauty are something we all experience in life itself.

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(left) Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit, 1635, oil on canvas, 102 x 75½ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(right) Carl Schmitt, 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 inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish master.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.

But life is not simply the enjoyment of all that is good and true and beautiful, and here is where that “everything is passing” comes in.  It refers to all the negatives in life that stem from our limitations and mistakes—as well as those of others.  My father saw all of these “non-goods” in terms of the great good of life itself.  It is in all the fears, setbacks, and darkness that the true greatness of life is revealed.  These are the shadows and the voids my father combined with the brightly lit lyric forms to make his art real—and hence beautiful.

In this way, he shows that each of us can find a measure of joy, peace, and beauty by pausing long enough to see our own struggles in the light of the great goodness of life itself.  This is the real work that redeems life of its momentary anxieties and troubles.  And as my father reminds us, that takes a lifetime.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.

“Just look at it!”: The Sower (c. 1937) and Via Crucis (c. 1936)

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The Sower, c. 1937, oil on hardboard, 24 x 19¾ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

These two paintings provide an occasion to clarify a confusion that people commonly have about Schmitt’s art: that it can be divided  into “religious” and “non-religious” works.  For Schmitt, all of his art was religious, including his portraits and still lifes.  Such categories force a division Schmitt himself never made in his art.  For Schmitt, beauty in art was fully and exclusively a human matter, portraying purely temporal, visible realities—things we all experience in our daily lives, whether we are religious believers or not.

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Via Crucis, c. 1936, oil on aluminum, 18 x 15 in.
This painting, with a frame by the artist’s brother Robert, was given by Carl Schmitt to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilton, Connecticut.  It now hangs in the reconciliation room.

According to Schmitt, all the arts reflect the mystery of Life only to the extent that the artist captures the fullness of human experience in his work.  The great artists, Schmitt felt, were able to “see deeper” into reality—to contemplate it, to see the life of man and of nature in all its depth and mystery.

These two paintings can help us meet the challenge found in almost all of Schmitt’s work.  The content of The Sower and Via Crucis seems obvious enough: both are about Christ.  And yet this is hardly the whole story.

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The Sower, 1937, Conte crayon on paper, 18 x 14 in.

A first look at The Sower might raise the question: Why is Christ portrayed as a farmer?  He was a carpenter and probably never sowed any seed in a field.  But this is not simply a picture of Christ.  Rather, it represents all of us in our basic human condition, the condition that was not erased, but embraced and perfected by Christ.  The artist challenges us, under the spell of beauty we find in his work, to see this fullness of reality.

The image of the sower makes us reflect that all good—any good—is naturally diffusive of  itself.  Every time we experience anything good in the course of our day, we desire to spread it around, tell it to others, to be “sowers” of the good word.  Can we see more deeply still?  Is not our love of the good (even the small goods of our daily lives) and our desire to share it a sign of our love for others?  The Christ in this painting is each one of us.  Even if Christ’s parable has a primary reference to spreading the seed of his word, it builds upon and perfects our natural desire to share the good with others.

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Carrying the Cross, 1922, etching, 7 x 13 in.
One of two etchings given by Schmitt to Hiliare Belloc in August, 1923

We again meet a perplexity upon seeing the Via Crucis.  Here, Christ wears no crown of thorns, indeed, there is no blood—nothing to suggest the bowed and suffering servant.  Instead, he is shown resolutely striding ahead to his own crucifixion with manful vigor.  The contrast with traditional depictions is a bit startling, perhaps even shocking.  As with The Sower, we are invited to go deeper and perceive something that is universal to all men.

“Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends”: Christ said this of his own sacrifice on the cross.  But consider how every Marine—and not necessarily a Christian—is ready to sacrifice himself to save the life of his buddy under fire.  And this readiness to sacrifice is also seen in the many small and loving acts we do for others without a thought of the cost.

The beauty of Schmitt’s paintings stems from his profound vision of human reality.  Their beauty lures us to stay and look again.  But he considered the beauty of his work a small reflection of the deeper reality—and with it, the beauty and joy—we can find if we but respond to the invitation to learn how to stop, enjoy, and contemplate.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Winter 2012.