Carl Schmitt’s Art

by Padraic Colum
The Commonweal, 1930

Immanent Trinity Decoration The most memorable pictures by a present-day painter that I have seen in a long time are being exhibited in the Park Avenue Galleries. They are by Carl Schmitt and they number only thirteen. Practically all are religious paintings, religious, not merely because they deal with traditional sacred subjects, but because they come out of those exaltations that set us above the temporal world. Those exaltations are always on the verge of passing into exultations. Thus in the painting, named Immanent Trinity Decoration, the crucified figure is laid upon colors so rich as to make us understand that the earth is not dull and inert, but is like a bouquet of flowers, or a casket of jewels. This is magnificent as decoration—it is like a mosaic in its reds and blues and gold. And as like as this to a mosaic is another picture to a wood-carving: this is the Guardian Angel that has such a quality of fulness that it seems to be solid; a remarkable technical accomplishment in this painting makes the eyes so watchful, so unbaffled. There is another angel among the thirteen paintings—the Angel of the Resurrection, who stands with up-pointing hands in a crumbling world: this figure in red and white is the most austere that Carl Schmitt has painted.

Madonna of the Milk Bottle For austerity is not the mark of this religious painter; he gives us rapture most often, he gives us gaiety sometimes. There is gaiety, there is playfulness even in the Madonna in White, in which a happy babe is held by a happy mother, and four sturdy children have the place of heraldic supports. The Madonna in Orange is a strange and very memorable picture—a childlike Madonna with curiously long eyes and an orange band around her: the colors are strange—they are like metal rimmed with flame. There is an Annunciation in which there is a single figure—the Virgin with hands folded and raised accepting with startled reverence the word given her; she is not childlike, this Virgin with the golden-brown eyes, but one who has toiled and waited. Then there is The Madonna with Milk-bottle in which we have a modern type in a beautiful design. There are two Gethsemanes among the paintings; the one that impressed me most is the Gethsemane in Blue in which the figure of Christ is not bowed, but upheld, a figure of great tension. In all these religious paintings there is something that is very seldom found in the art of today, that is as rare in painting as it is rare in poetry—the quality of rapture.
There is one portrait here—portrait of Michael Monahan: it is only a sketch; as though at a distance one sees a man who has become still with some thought or memory; it is so sympathetically painted that one accepts it as a revelation of the sitter.

I had seen some of these pictures before and in a place that had a different atmosphere from that of a picture gallery. I had seen them in the painterís house, on rough walls, hanging above where children played or where a family sat at a meal. In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around. And here beside the Silvermine River in Connecticut I talked with a man who might have worked in one of the cathedrals or belonged to a mediaeval guild of craftsmen, a man who considers art in relation to an economy utterly different from the one that is dominant among us in the world today.

For to Carl Schmitt our civilization is one of “vehicles”—of means that fill our minds almost to the exclusion of ends—the musician is not thought of behind the array of radios, the writer with some compelling experience is not thought of behind the mass of printing, a place to content us is not thought of as being at the end of the line of moving automobiles. Means are becoming ends in themselves while ends are being disregarded. Mass production, not individual creation or individual discovery, or even individual use, is what the world turns to and turns to more and more. Does the modern metropolitan society want art—that is to say the communication of profound individual experience? There is no evidence that it does; it is getting on to its liking with substitutes for art. But although it does not want art in the sense of desiring it, it certainly wants it in the sense of needing it.

The divergence between the artist and the world we are living in is plainly shown in certain sentences which this painter has written in a note-book which I have borrowed from him. I transcribe these sentences here.

The final responsibility for the quality of a musical composition, a poem or a picture, rests upon the aesthetic conscience of those who support the artist.

Music, literature and painting are essentially “peasant” arts, that is as artists, the workers in these arts are fundamentally of the “serving” class.

In a balanced society (one showing a unity of three basic classes—the servant, the steward, the master) the artist is the servant attached through special patronage to the prince or master. The artist is bound by ties of charity to please the patron.

In the confusion of the present social structure the artist is still essentially the servant, but lacking a master in the fullest sense of the word he attaches himself to a member of any class who will support him. That his patron is of the steward or middle class, makes such attachment today not without irony. Instinctively bound by ties of gratitude he must, he feels, go as far as possible in rendering his work (by nature meant for the prince) intelligible to the shifting tastes of the plutocrat. He still hopes, however, that somehow out of this sterile banking, trading, transporting world, a prince will arise to give him true appreciation and security.

At present the artist is a dog without a master.

This manifesto, I expect, will be disquieting to those who think that this world of enormous and anonymous productivity is likely to create or foster art.

Originally published in The Commonweal, June 11, 1930. Reprinted with permission.

© Copyright 2004, 2011 Carl Schmitt Foundation