Much of the culture world today is talking about this year’s winner of the Turner Prize for contemporary art. Having read about and seen the work of the winner of this ever-dubious distinction, the less that I say about her the better. So instead, let’s look at someone who produced interesting art, instead of assemblages of detritus, and see what we can learn from him.
The work of American painter Carl Schmitt (1889-1989) is a bit difficult to categorize, as his son Carl B. Schmitt, Jr. explained to us last night in a presentation at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington. The talk was timed to the launch of a new book on his father’s work entitled “Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty”. Mr. Schmitt is the President of the Carl Schmitt Foundation, which is dedicated to the study and appreciation of his late father’s work.
Over the course of his very long career, Schmitt worked in a number of different styles, to the point where one cannot characterize his having a single style at all. He made a concerted effort to insert the view of the modern artist into the study of traditional art, as his son explained. While Schmitt was significantly influenced by some of the ideas of Cézanne and other Post-Impressionist painters, particularly with regard to the mixing of the solidity of traditional Western academic painting with the understanding of color and light developed by the Impressionists, the slides we were shown of his work represented a broad output one could not easily categorize.
In Schmitt’s work the viewer can perceive a range of artistic echoes from the past, such as the Tenebrism and “bodegones” popular in 17th century Spain, or the work of Franco-Flemish Medieval manuscript illuminators and Elizabethan miniaturists. Yet the resulting paintings are Schmitt’s alone, from his own day and time. He was not a 15th century artist, but a 20th century one. And he saw his world though the lens of his own experiences as an artist, a husband, a father, and a Catholic in the previous century.
The artist’s son noted that a very perceptible problem in contemporary art could be characterized as one of a failure to study. “There are no Old Master painters today,” he observed, “because there are no young disciples.” When anything can be art, as the Turner Prize repeatedly informs us, what we get more often than not is art lacking in actual art: there is no craft, or study, or mastery of technique, just an insistence that the viewer pay attention.
The quiet, often intense family portraits and still life paintings by Schmitt are the antithesis of this kind of tantrum-as-spectacle. They do not shout at you, but invite you to linger, and to reflect. While Schmitt is perhaps best known in Catholic circles for his religious works, I was particularly drawn to the very personal images of his wife, his children, and himself, as well as to the often deceptively simple still lives of bottles combined with objects such as eggs, garlic bulbs, and oranges, which allowed the artist to look more closely into problems of representing light and hue. These last in particular form a body of work all the more remarkable, given how often Schmitt limited himself to a palette of only the three primary colors.
A self-confident artist who appreciates the need to treat his subject with strength and respect is someone whose work is always going to appeal to the viewer. This type of work can be appreciated on many levels, whether for its beauty, or in the demonstration of technical skill on the part of its creator. One can even go further and choose to try to read something more into it, yet in some cases, to paraphrase Freud, a painting is just a painting. Schmitt’s son remarked that once, when he tried to get into a discussion with his father about one of his still life paintings, his father observed: “Don’t make up stupid theories. Just look at it.” That was good advice then, and it is still good advice today.
To view images of Carl Schmitt’s work, or to order a copy of “Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty”, please visit the Schmitt Foundation’s website by following this link.