“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

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Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941.  The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East.  The exhibition itself featured paintings showing  a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.

I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge.  His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms.  He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery.  The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.

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Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The “comment” in the painting  can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych.  But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not.  Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money.  This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.

Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs.  But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person.  In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends.  The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.

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Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation.  Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way.  Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.  For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”

Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty.  If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The arts as fundamental

The idea that a work of art is something to be used as an embellishment and its possession is the mark of a cultured person (provided the work of art is in style) and nothing else, is the mark of decay in European society.
“The fact of the matter is that the arts are as fundamental to the material life of man as the sacraments are to his spiritual.  As the sacraments fail, so do the arts.”  (1943)

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Still Life with Banana, c. 1975, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.

The Flowering of One’s Roots

A wonderful article by Bridget Skidd, a recent graduate of Thomas More College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on her search not only for a long-lost painting, but her place in the Catholic tradition.  While in England studying the Catholic Literary Revival,

Through word of mouth I had heard that a painting by my great grandfather, Carl Schmitt, was ‘somewhere in Oxford.’ With no idea of the subject of the painting except that it was religious, and unsure of which of the many houses and colleges might be the home, I set out on my search.

Read the rest here: The Flowering of One’s Roots.

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Resurrection, c. 1940.
This painting is very similar to one of the same name bought by Schmitt’s good friend John Cavanaugh in the 1940s and now owned by the C. Michael Schmitt family.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Energy necessary to light

“All spiritual activity, or religion, is like a storage battery which illuminates the imagination and produces a culture.  Hence all humanism, all paganism—all art—is a reaction away from religion (but not an evil reaction).  Unless the ancestors of a man or a nation have by means of moral progress and contemplation stored up powerful energy in the batteries, no life, or no epoch would be outstanding in the production of beauty.”  (October 1941)

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Palace of Septimius Severus, watercolor on paper, 18 x 15 in.
A work dating from the 1940s based on sketches done in Rome in the 1935.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Religion the vital force

“The Fine Arts serve to recall us to the fact that mystical religion is the vital force most deeply embedded in man, from which springs all his notable activity.
“They seem to show most clearly [that] when religion departs from this central vitality, no matter how active the science of religion, if this central core of Being is deserted the Fine Arts tend to wither and die.
“So, it may truly be said, that a culture flourishes whenever religion flourishes in its true and full sense.”
“The Value of the Fine Arts” (March 1943)

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St. Katharine, oil on canvas, 1922, 30 x 25 in.