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)

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. . . .