“What is truth (and its symbol beauty) but objectivity? Unless vision is objective there would be no sense in constancy. Constancy is the ability to persevere in attachment to objective reality in spite of space temporalities: fugitive moods, rationalizations, and physical inconstancy.” (1934)
“To strive constantly to see beyond the things in which we are immediately interested requires great courage because it means the death but not destruction of those immediate interests. For all death has the germ of birth within it. To keep on is to redeem.” (August 21, 1931)
Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob has written extensively on his father’s life, work, and aesthetic philosophy. This excerpt discusses Schmitt’s awakening to the unique contribution of Rome not simply to world culture in general, but the interiority which is vital to any authentic endeavor in the arts.
While on a second honeymoon in 1934, after visiting Dalmatia and the little towns of Korčula, Split, and Dubrovnik along the Adriatic where he had visited as a student, Schmitt continued to Venice, Florence, and Rome. One afternoon, while sketching the gigantic ruins of Septimius Severus palace in Rome, he once again was reminded of the significance of place. Nowhere, he recounts in his notes, had he found as here in Rome, a sense of permanency and interior quietude. This “realization” was first experienced during his student years in Italy, but here and now, in the Eternal City, he found a more profound, conscious realization of it—a sense of what he first called “interior being.”
His mind went back to the time when these ancient ruins, the Theater of Marcellus, the Baths of Caracalla, and the still-standing Pantheon, were built with massive archways and vaulted ceilings that soared to the heavens with a glorious spacious interiors—what he later called the form of interior space.
These magnificent interior structures were created by and signified, in his mind, an interior, personal maturity not seen in any previous age. Here in Rome, he thought, was what the true Renaissance was seeking—the manifestation of a full human person who recognized the superiority of an interior, familial life over the social, political life endemic of the Grecian contribution. Rome had turned inside out all that it had absorbed from the idealized, aesthetic Grecian culture. It had unified all the scattered Grecian city-states into the one centralized political system of Rome—Urbe et Orbe (the city of Rome and the whole world).
Thus, for Schmitt, the Roman sense for interior space became a more inclusive realization and expression of reality. It had the advantage of an interior vision of seeing things from the “inside out” rather than from the Platonic-Grecian idealized vision of looking “on” or “at” things from the “outside in.” This was a more personal development without which no true perfection in anything could be developed. Here was the central aspect of his aesthetic dramatic stage more fully realized.
No wonder, he thought, that this interior form of the Roman Republic was able to permeate, absorb, and inform the then-known world. No wonder Peter and Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, found themselves in Rome transforming this personal, pagan, interior maturity—first prepared for by the realization of the hidden interior nature of reality found in Aristotelian thought—into an interior Christo-centric reality.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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. . . .
No representation can begin to do justice to the vitality, richness, and depth of Carl Schmitt’s original still life painting. When viewing—actually contemplating—the original, the words that come to mind are splendor, mystery, fullness, silence, reverence, delight, magnificence. One finds oneself asking, “How can ordinary objects represented on a stretch of canvas so grip us? What is going on here?”
The starting premise is that “there is much more than what meets the eye” behind those ordinary things we come across each day. It is the genius of the artist to communicate that to us. This is what Schmitt meant when he wrote, “the artist is concerned not with sight but with vision.”
Vision is a penetration into the depth of reality and embodying that insight in a work of art. As Schmitt noted, “reality is the keynote to life and art. To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive. To make paint or stone real is to make it live. A work of art is mature—complete—when it lives and appears real.”
“To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.”
Schmitt’s mature work is the fruit of a lifetime of perfecting this aesthetic approach and reflecting that vision on canvas. The composition of a bowl, bottle, and oranges is much more than a photographic representation. The objects reveal more being. Schmitt has taken great pains in this painting to capture the form—the active determining principle of a thing—that makes a thing what it is—its “is-ness.”
This capturing of intangible form was the “Holy Grail” of the great masters. They began with an under-painting in a single dark tone as the basis of the form. They then added a thin layer of color—a glaze of paint—letting the under-painting come through. This technique helped to give their works profoundness and beauty.
Schmitt, intrigued by color and its myriad possibilities, grappled with the problem of capturing a glowing richness of color without hiding the under-painting. His breakthrough was to build form with color. By forming his under-painting with multiple layers of color, then paring and “sculpting” back each layer, Schmitt was able to create a unique depth in his work. The background is no mere flat laying on of paint, but a sculpting of colors which allows each layer to shine through, resulting in a vibrant iridescence of color. The final step was to add what Schmitt called the “local” color—the blue of the porcelain dish, the orange of the orange peel, and the effervescent green of the bottle.
The artist’s treatment of the glass objects in this painting is particularly revealing of his grasp of their substance. The blue of the dish as seen through the glass of the large green bottle demonstrates the skill with which the artist layered his colors. In contrast, the smaller bottles in the background depict glass in a less familiar mode: they seem weighty and almost solid. “My father loved to paint glass,” Schmitt’s daughter Gertrude recalls; “it was one of the things he loved to paint.” In this painting, glass is revealed not only as luminescent, but dense and substantial.
“The painter’s business is to paint all that lies outside the empirical field:
to reveal as fully as possible what can never be shown by the camera.
In essence it is to reveal but one thing: volume, mass, and substance,
not to the exclusion of appearance but as a fulfillment of appearance–
in short, to bear witness to the mystery–the miracle–of substance.”
If the mission of the artist is to get us to raise our eyes from the mere usefulness of everyday things to wonder at their inherent beauty, then Carl Schmitt has succeeded magnificently in this still life.
—Austin L. Schmitt