“Several people have complained that they cannot understand my pictures and have asked if I would explain them. This lack of understanding never fails to surprise me, as I try to paint only what I see as exactly and clearly as possible. I think pictures are meant to be looked at. If there is a secret—the eye must comprehend it.” —Carl Schmitt, 1930
Carl Schmitt was adamant that a painting does not need any “explanation”—one simply had to “look at it.” For him, the “eye” of the viewer was the only adequate vehicle for the vision conveyed by the artist.
Schmitt’s The Second Night was one such painting. As the artist’s most successful work up to that time, it was inevitable that people wondered about the significance of the title as well as the “meaning” behind the figures in the painting. The secretary to the Director of the Art Museum in St. Louis, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1930, wrote to Schmitt to ask “unofficially” “why you entitled your painting ‘The Second Night.’” In his typically accommodating fashion, Schmitt responded a few days later with a beautiful handwritten letter.
Dear Miss Herlage,
Thank you very much for your inquiry. I am sorry that my title has caused difficulties – many people have asked what it was all about. I hardly know what to say. As you infer the ultimate object of painting is vision. Still an idea (or common experience) is necessary to a picture, if not of the first importance. “The Second Night” is the sixth of a cycle of seven paintings which are a mystical succession. As I am reluctant to inflict mystical implications upon what is largely an extroverted public, I thot it best only to imply thro the title the idea of the “second night of the soul” and to allow the beholder to make his own story. I trust that this in a measure will explain!
This is the only time Schmitt mentions any “mystical succession” of his paintings, so it is unclear which works might fall into this category.
What Schmitt does make clear is that the title of the painting refers to “the second night of the soul,” an unmistakable allusion to the classical mystical tradition of St. John of the Cross. In St. John’s understanding, the soul must pass through two “dark nights“ in order to reach full union with God. The first, the “night of the senses,” purges the soul of all affection for earthy things. In the second, far more painful trial, God purges the soul of all remaining attachments, even those to its own will and judgment.Seen in this light, the painting may depict the intense anguish of the soul—portrayed in traditional fashion as a woman—as she submits to the promptings of the One who urges us to become “like little children” if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. The barren landscape and mountainous crags, so different from the artists usual frondescence, heightens the anguish of the woman’s face and contorted movement as she struggles to gain a foothold on the uneven ground. Only the Little Child stands erect.
The painting may also portray, as Schmitt’s letter suggests, a more personal “story.” Schmitt speaks of his own “night” in the journal he kept during a busy winter early in his marriage. Enjoying a respite from an extraordinary period of financial and artistic strain in the fall of 1924, the artist reflected, “We should thank God for all difficulties of merely getting over the mountain. But the vista after it’s over is unimagined in the night and the rocks. . . depression is the absence of Love. Everyone must be a lover to live.”
Schmitt’s own trial opened to him a vista—a vision—”unimagined in the night.” It remained for him to embody that vision in his art.