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. . . .

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Featured painting: Peeled Orange

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Peeled Orange, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

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.”

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Peeled Orange, detail

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.

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Peeled Orange, detail

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

Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2010.

Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

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Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”

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Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).

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Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.

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Eggs and Copper, detail

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