“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.

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—The balanced human

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Michael, c. 1942, oil on canvas, 23 x 19 in.

“The human, the balanced human, believes that the mystery of birth, death, and life is master of science: that science is a means.  The Liberal believes that science is the master of all; the human knows that it is simply a matter of time till the substance of life absorbs the means.  Temporarily the means has gotten out of hand.”  (1958)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—History, myth, and reality

“One must understand that there are three realities:
Spiritual, mythological, and factual.
“While they are distinct, they can never be isolated without heresy. As I believe that heresy is the cause of all our troubles, I also believe that through Christ this basic heresy (of the separation of origins, means, and ends) has been resolved by his focus on history, myth, and reality.”  (November 1957)

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Sitting Madonna and Child, woodcut print, c. 1920

Mysticism on Mondays: Mysticism as balance

“The things which are held up to us as ends are generally insufficient things toward which to devote a life.  Love, industry, perseverance, knowledge etc. are taken for granted in a proportioned life as means only. The end of life is vision based upon a delicate balance of these things.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1932

Carl Schmitt saw proportion or balance as key for the integrity of the artist; indeed, it is the touchstone of a life lived according to wisdom.  “Of the three activities of man: religious, aesthetic, and expedient, wisdom maintains the balance.”

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Woman Reclining, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

This wisdom lay in seeing the distinction between means (the “expedient”) on the one hand and origins and ends on the other (the aesthetic and religious).  In Schmitt’s view the means—the “media”—have completely taken over to the point that we identify ourselves not with where we have come from (origins) or where we are going (ends), but with the “media”—the means.  “We have forgotten the ends. We are the middle, and media are rapidly becoming our sole concern through choice with some, through habit with many more, and, as a result, through necessity with most of us.  This I conceive is the tragedy of our present culture: that media are no longer in the middle but are the very, only, stuff of ourselves, and the ends can take care of themselves!”

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Study for Reclining Woman, pastel on paper, 13 x 16 in.

Within a “proportioned life,” mysticism holds a crucial place in maintaining the balance among these different elements, or rather in fusing the elements in a balanced whole.  As Schmitt explains: “Man cannot live by activity alone.  But wed or balance activity with desire and activity becomes virtue (industry).  And balance activity with inactivity and activity becomes beauty (melody).”  The “activity” of art, its creation in physical matter, must be balanced by “inactivity,” by the “desire” of the artist to see things as a mystic, in their deepest reality.  Only then is he able to transform his art into the melody of beauty.

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Chestnut Tree, pastel on paper, 17 x 14 in.

For Schmitt, then, mysticism was no dreamy pastime of the indolent artiste, but the very foundation of artistic creation.  More than this, mysticism makes possible the balance within the artist himself which in turn offer the conditions for “true art.”  “The most perfect beauty is a perfect balance between cleverness and naiveté – between worldliness and piety between activity and quietude—between mystical and practical. . . . For the artist, mysticism must be renewed if this delicately balanced attitude is to be recaptured and art live once more.  Without this simultaneous ‘every-day mysticism’ practicality gets the ascendancy, cleverness and egotism advance, and true art recedes.”

True mysticism is itself a balance: between the individual and the social, between the personal experience of God and the understanding of God built up through the tradition of the Church.  We will explore the intimate connection between this balance and art in upcoming posts.