Wisdom on Wednesdays—The breakdown of civilization

Lady in Garden

Lady in a Garden, pastel on paper, c. 1922, 14¼ x 11¼ in.
A portrait of Schmitt’s wife Gertrude done outside his studio in Silvermine.

“Can our national virtues of Comfort, Wealth, and Success be reconciled with the Cardinal Virtues of Chastity, Poverty, and Humility?  I am afraid that the answer must be honestly faced.  And the answer is, No.  The breakdown of civilization has probably been caused by the attempt to reconcile the two sets of ultimately contradictory, exclusive values.”  (1943)

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Christian crux II

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Via Crucis, c. 1936, oil on aluminum, 18 x 15 in.

“I say it again—this Christian crux—this cross of Christ, when carried, will bring an epic poetic impulse (and consequently a heroic era for all art) that will make Greek art seem trivial, as Greek art is the heroism of the stoic and not of the humble cross-bearer.”  (c. 1930)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Destiny and death

“Man is only happy in cooperating with his individual destiny. All men are destined to perfect virtue.
Some men are destined to achieve virtue before death.
Some are destined to achieve it after death.
It is a special mark of providence to have the opportunity of complete humility before death. The longer before death it is—the greater the mark of God’s love.”
(October 19, 1929)

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Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918, 20 x 15 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Religion of Progress

“Can our national virtues of Comfort, Wealth, and Success be reconciled with the Cardinal Virtues of Chastity, Poverty, and Humility?  I am afraid that the answer must be honestly faced.  And the answer is, No.  The breakdown of civilization has probably been caused by the attempt to reconcile the two sets of ultimately contradictory, exclusive values.  After listening to all the arguments against a ‘vicious and criminal poverty,’ ‘suffering brought about by ignorance and sin,’ and ‘failure due to lack of prudence,’ I must still repeat that Christ was uncomfortable and suffered. Christ was poor, and He was a Failure.  There is still holy suffering, holy poverty, and holy failure, as we shall discover when we have failed.”  (1943)

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Carrying the Cross, etching, 1922, 7 x 13 in.

Featured Painting: St. Francis and the Unicorn

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St Francis and the Unicorn, oil on canvas, 1931, 25¼ x 29¾ in.

St. Francis and the Unicorn is not only an unusual looking picture; it had an unusual genesis in the catalogue of Carl Schmitt’s works.  We have already written of how Schmitt moved away from commissioned work after some early success as a portrait painter.  This “commission,” however, come from a friend, and was one of the few paintings other than portraits that the artist painted on commission after his marriage in 1918.  

Harold Morton Landon was a successful stockbroker in New York with a wife and two children when he met Schmitt on a journey back from Europe in 1927.   Landon, a cultured man who translated Portuguese and Latin and boasted a fine collection of old master paintings, became an avid “fan” of the younger artist.  He saw all the exhibitions that he could and even helped arrange some shows for Schmitt at galleries in New York.  Around 1930 he had Schmitt paint a portrait of his wife Frederica, who had formed a warm friendship with Carl’s wife Gertrude.   

Landon made a singular proposal.  Having inherited $1,000 from an uncle, he wanted to pay the sum to Schmitt to paint a picture with the title The Unicorn’s Paradise.  “Fantastic looking trees, strange leaves and fruits, and other happy figures and animals etc. etc.,” Landon wrote Schmitt in September, 1930.  “Taking a peek onto this “Garden of Eden,” perhaps might be the figure of Saint Francis, the lover of animals!!  This is a suggestion: hear it in any way that you are inspired to.” 

As Landon gave Schmitt wide latitude to paint his own picture, the artist readily agreed to the proposal.  The fact that the artist was in very tight financial straits at this time may also have been a factor in his decision to accept the offer.  Most significant of all, Landon’s proposed subject matter dovetailed with the aesthetic philosophy Schmitt was working out at the time.  This is clear from the following reflection on the painting by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr., first published in the Fall 2011 issue of the CSF News.  

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

Every artist is a myth-maker.  Every artistic creation is a “fiction”—an untruth that nevertheless puts the truth before us.

All this is worlds away from the ethos of modern science, based upon incontrovertible fact and mathematical accuracy.  From the industrial revolution to the digital age, our culture is shaped by science’s amazing success in raising the standard of living and creating a world market of products for us to enjoy. And few escape the incontrovertible fact that is the bottom line.  Myth is the last thing we find useful at all.

Art certainly has a place in such a culture: there is, after all, a huge market in art.  Works done by those with the artistic gift of seeing beyond the superficialities of our way of life abound.  But these artists are children of their own time.  What they see either reflects that numbing superficiality or, if labeled “radical,” throw in our faces the ugliness of our culture—and not infrequently the ugliness of their own despair.

Carl Schmitt was a true radical: he looked to the root of reality, and neither ugliness nor despair finds echo in his work. There we find only beauty—and with it an optimism about man, life, and yes, even about our culture. This painting can help us get a glimpse of that vision.

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

The unicorn, in legend, purifies with its horn the waters poisoned by the serpent so all could drink.  It could only be caught by a virgin.  Though often a symbol of Christ, in Schmitt’s painting it stands for the virtue of chastity.  St. Francis represents poverty, as they behold one another in a fantastic landscape.

Schmitt painted this picture when, as an artist, he had worked through two of the three stages he saw in the life of man. In the first stage he learned to handle the rhythms of color, associated with the joys of life’s origins in the family. Its key virtue is chastity. The second stage deals with the light and shadows which reveal man more fully as he enters into society and takes on responsibilities and trials. The virtue needed at this stage is poverty as opposed to the avarice and greed that so afflicts our culture.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1932, 25 x 30 in.

The third stage deals with the deeper truth that all things temporal must die.  The virtue here is humility: the final blow to the pride of life that each of us must wrestle with personally.  Schmitt was able to reach it some ten years after completing this painting.  We see it in those dark voids he learned to put into his mature paintings.  He was fully aware that ours is a culture of death, but in his vision of reality, life triumphs over death.  He bore witness to this truth precisely in those voids which bring out so much of the stunning beauty of his late works.

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Gertrude in Roman Scarf, oil on canvas, c. 1960, 25¼ x 30¼ in.

When a fact passes into the past or future it becomes myth.
Myth is the stuff of Art.
Notebook 26 (1964)