Art as play


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.”


“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.


Carl Schmitt’s vision

In my last post I spoke about Carl Schmitt’s “secret,” seeing his life as a gift received and given. This gift took concrete form in his work as an artist.

Schmitt saw his art as an embodiment of what he called a “vision” of life and reality. This “vision” came to him in his 30s when he was struggling to support his wife and six children solely through art.  He saw it as the path he had to pursue if he was to aspire to greatness as an artist.

Schmitt’s vision saw art and life in three stages or “planes”: the lyric, the epic and the dramatic.  The lyric was the first encounter with reality–the perception of a child who sees the world bathed in light.  In art, this is expressed in “flat” designs, permeated with light and free of shadows.


Madonna and Child, oil on hardboard, c. 1922

As the child grows and into adulthood, shadows and conflict appear–he must reconcile himself to things outside of himself that challenge his first innocence.  One can see this “epic” stage in paintings where the light comes from without, casting shadows and nuance upon the objects depicted.


Red Madonna, oil on aluminum, c. 1935

Finally, the tensions of the epic give to way to an integration of the first two stages in the “dramatic” plane.  Here the light seems to come from within the persons and objects in the painting. At the same time the dark “voids” provide an image of the price paid for this integration.

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Blue Madonna, oil on canvas, c. 1950

This is a tremendous vision of the whole of life: that our completion as human beings comes only after a struggle to bring together all our experiences–including our suffering–into a complete personality.  A full human being is not meant to lose his childlike joy in life, nor can he ignore what the world has to teach him.  But these things must be purged and redeemed through what he called the “voids” into a fully mature character.

He was convinced that any artist aspiring above the mediocre had to let himself experience these “voids.”  But the artistic fruit of this suffering, this maturity as an artist and as a person, was precious. Schmitt called it “Form.”

“Form” is that elusive yet substantial quality you sense on viewing his best paintings. He strove for nothing less than the splendid presentation of the full reality or “substance” of things in his art. As he put it, “A work of art is mature–complete–when it lives and appears real.”

In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my sense of reality is heightened by an encounter with great art such as that of Carl Schmitt. This is how he put it in his paradoxical way: “Nothing should be painted that cannot be excelled in the painting. That is, be more real.”


Still Life, oil on hardboard, 1942

This was not abstract theory, but the way he lived his life and pursued his art.  “Form” was not just an “idea,” but was intimately connected with art and life. It could be put on canvas only by an artist striving to live and develop his personality to its full human potential, a struggle involving hardship and suffering.  Living and working in obscurity in the darkest days of the Second World War, with several of his sons fighting overseas, he expressed it this way: “There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”

As we explore Schmitt’s life, it will become evident that he knew of what he wrote.  The greatness of his art is the fruit of his own struggle to see reality in the purest possible light. In his own words: “Personality is the potential of form.”

This is not say that Carl Schmitt was in any way a cheerless figure or that his life was little more than a series of grim struggles.  Those who knew him say that he had a marked effect on everyone he came in contact with.  He was serious about life but never dour or depressed, exacting with himself but courteous and understanding with everyone from miserly businessmen to his own small children.  He showed a remarkable consistency and depth of character throughout his long life.  Most of all he was quietly passionate about his art and devoted his whole self to realizing his extraordinary talents to the full, to fulfill his mature personality, his complete “form.”


Still Life, detail