“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933)

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Deposition, c. 1933, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

A guest post by my late father, John S. Schmitt, written two years before his death in 2012.  The painting now hangs in the chapel he built for Trivium School. 

On the walls of my home I have a collection of fine works by Carl Schmitt, including two religious paintings.  It is one of these that I am proudest to own, to sit before and to think about.  It depicts the deposition of Christ, the taking down of his dead body from the cross.  Let me tell you some of the things I have delightfully discovered about the composition of this painting and how light reveals the values of the objects in the painting.

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Study for Deposition, pastel on paper, approx. 9 x 13 in.

At first glance, the arrangement of the composition is circular or, as the artist would put it, lyrical.  The huddled figures at the top with their supporting arms, the legs of the body, and the humble figure at the lower right constitute the principal shape of the painting.  Looking more closely, we see vertical structural elements, the hallmark of the epic: the arms gently but firmly supporting the weight of the dead body.  Finally, the angular forms in the contraposto of the body and the turn of the head, arms, and legs of Christ reveal dynamic or dramatic elements.  Thus both the lyrical and epic elements draw the eye to focus on the dramatic figure in the center.  The abstract and universal forms embedded in nature—the lyric, epic, and dramatic—are here brilliantly interwoven in a simple unity of mature and masterful composition.

Deposition - Gates Moore - Cropped and color corrected

Pieta, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.
A work inspired by the old masters both in its composition and in its use of contemporary dress, the latter unusual for Schmitt in a religious painting.

Along with the composition, the artist’s use of light to reveal form draws us into the contemplation of the reality before us.  It is light and dark which reveal all form.  The artist has delineated the form not only through his simple palette of the three primary colors but also the values of light and dark, most evident in the effulgence of light.  This light is truly mysterious.  Does it emanate from an unseen source outside the painting, or does it flow out from the sacred body itself?

Once again we are confronted with the mystery of the central figure in the painting.  And yet this aesthetically dynamic figure is a dead body!  Although surrounded by darkness, it seems to glow with a light beyond the power of nature.  As inspiring as the presence of light is in the painting, finally it is through the selective lack of light—what the artist called voids—that, paradoxically, reality is revealed for what it truly is.  Like the irony of the drama of the dead body at the center of the painting, the voids —the absence of light—serve an “ironic” or paradoxical function highlighting the significance of what is being depicted.

Thus this masterpiece allows us to glimpse what the physical eye alone is unable to perceive.  We realize something of the Grand Reality bodied forth in delightful contemplation of natural reason, faith, hope, and charity: the reality of the Incarnation in truth is represented.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty.

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Hidden away in the archives, piles of pastels and sketches lie closed up in portfolios, awaiting framing.  Dulled by dust, vivid oils call for cleaning.  One of our most cherished paintings, Boy with Cello, now shrouded in gauze, awaits release. Your gift will ensure these works get the care they need to be exhibition-ready.

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Austin with Cello - gauze and original -CSF11201

Carl Schmitt considered Boy with Cello (1931) one of his finest works. This beloved painting was recently returned to the Foundation’s gallery in Silvermine for an urgently-needed restoration.

Long-term, research continues on the catalogue raisonné, and the definitive biography of Schmitt’s rich life and career.  And Carl Schmitt, Jr. is hard at work on a full-length treatment of his father’s aesthetic thought.

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Friday Madonna, 1930, oil on canvas, 42 x 35 in.
A wonderful re-imagining of the familiar Madonna and Child from the same period as Boy with Cello. Another major work deserving of a complete restoration.

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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. . . .

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

Art as play

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Three Children with Toys, oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 36 in.

As we saw in our last post, Carl Schmitt saw the creation of art as a “symbolic story.”  It is the story of man’s search for God in all things—of seeing “beyond things” —and conveying this vision in an artistic medium.

For such a transcendent end the story has humble beginnings.  As Schmitt explains in his 1922 essay “Some Brief Suggestions of My Main Beliefs in Art,” “art in its essence is neither practical nor religious.  It is play.”

It is crucial to grasp the place of art—of fine art—in the life of man: it serves no practical purpose, but neither does it serve a religious purpose, exalted as that may be.  In Schmitt’s terms, we could say that art does not deal with means (the stuff of practical life) nor with ends (the purview of religion).  Rather, the artist, the creator, like the child at play, is one “close to the origins” of things. This unique position gives art a purity in revealing the life of man, both body and soul.  As Schmitt puts it, “That play”—art—“is a record of the soul’s life united with the life of the body.”

Like the two components of man, body and soul, the material record and the spiritual record, though present in a single work of art, can be distinguished.  (And, as we shall see, it is just this distinction that Schmitt sees as the key to the judgment of any artistic creation.)  On the side of the material life, the record is straightforward: “We are pretty well aware of the record of material life: in painting, the tactile and optical reality.”  But just as with man, a body without a soul is dead: “This ‘optical reality’ alone does not express life: the content, the soul is missing.”

In Schmitt’s view, Western art since the Middle Ages has been so focused on “optical realism” as to forsake the life of the soul.  He goes so far as to refer to most art of the past several centuries as “dead,” commenting wryly: “By and large, the dead painting—painting which is wonderfully realistic description and description alone–has been praised, bought, and generally bothered about very seriously for many years.”

But how is the artist to embody more than just the “optical reality” of things in his work?  “How is this life of the soul evident in a painting?”  As the eye is the power of the body which records the description, so also there is a power which “records the immanent and transcendent life of the soul.”  This power must be operative if the painting is to “express life.”

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“The Little Red House,” oil on canvas, 18 x 22 inches

At this point, Schmitt’s thought takes an unexpected turn: he identifies this power with the imagination.  We are used to thinking of the imagination as the conjurer of fantasy, the creator of fictional worlds and fantastic creatures.  Fundamentally, however, the imagination is the power to make mental images: it works with the memory to form pictures of things that once were or to “imagine” things that never were or could be.

What is startling here, and is key to his whole aesthetic vision, is that Schmitt sees the record of the life of the soul not in terms of concepts but precisely in terms of images. In this sense he calls the imagination “the physical counterpoint of the soul”: it records or “images” the life of the soul.

As description or likeness is the record of material life, so Schmitt names the record of the spiritual life “design.”  The difference between “likeness” and “design” is the same as the difference between two activities of the artist, drawing and designing: “Many draw, but few design.”  Drawing is concerned with the likeness, but design transcends the technique of drawing.  At the same time design is not to be thought of as something apart from the likeness, or an order imposed upon it, but as that which “informs the mass and unifies it.”

In describing the imagination’s perception of design in a painting, Schmitt takes a cue from the art of music.  Just as the rhythm is not “added to” a melody, but is inseparable from it, so design is the “expression which is embedded in, and at one with description.”  The deeper pleasure in art comes precisely from the perception of this rhythm: “After our first enjoyment of whatever descriptive, optical pleasure (the sensuous and the tactile) there may be in a work of art, come the delight of the imagination: ‘reading’ the rhythm.”

As the imagination of the artist produced these rhythms, so it is the imagination of the viewer which takes them in and enjoys them.  These rhythms “are personal and they are the permanent stuff of this our world, delight of the lovers of beauty. The loves, victories, or defeats, triumphs, all movements of the soul, in fact live for us in the rhythms of our peers, the artists.”

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Portrait of Santo Caserta, oil on canvas, c. 1932

Although Schmitt goes on to say that “the varieties of rhythm are infinite,” he identifies three principal currents: the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  This takes us full circle to the “threes” discussed in one of our first posts, “Carl Schmitt’s Vision.”  There we outlined Schmitt’s seminal idea of the triune “realities of the imagination”, the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  It cannot be overstated how fundamental this “triune thesis” —the interplay of lyric, epic, and dramatic—are to Schmitt’s thought.  In various forms it appears again and again in his reflections on fine arts, and by extension in discussions of history, politics, and religion.  The thesis forms the backdrop of virtually every substantial essay recorded in Schmitt’s notebooks over many decades.  A selection of these essays can be found at the Carl Schmitt website, and we will be exploring many of them in upcoming posts.