Friday, December 10, 2010

Balancing the General and the Particular

I recently saw this Deposition by Carl Schmitt (1889-1989). Schmitt was a classically trained American artist who was a friend of Hilaire Belloc (who owned work by Schmitt) and who contributed a weekly column to Chesterton’s Weekly Review when Belloc was its editor. He was a faithful Catholic all his life and had 10 children who all kept the faith, one of whom was a priest. He was much travelled around Europe and lived for most of his adult life in Connecticut. I like his still lives particularly (see

Amongst his religious works was this deposition. This is a good example, in my opinion, to study when considering how to balance the general and the particular characteristics of the person. For good sacred art, that balance has to be right.

Some time ago, I wrote an article (Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic), about the tendency amongst modern naturalistic artists to paint sacred art in which the rendering, especially the faces, is too naturalistic and too particular to one person, like a portrait. The result is paintings that look like the next door neighbor dressed up in old-fashioned clothing in a staged Victorian tableau. In my assessment there was too much emphasis on the particular and not enough on the general human characteristics of the saint or person depicted. It is the general characteristics that enable us to relate to those aspects that we are supposed to be inspired by and imitate, such as virtue. By definition, we can only aspire to imitate those aspects that are common to us. It is not possible to imitate something that is particular to someone else.

The sacred art of baroque of the 17th century (in contrast to 19th century naturalism) always plays down the individual characteristics with skillful use of shadow, depletion of color and variation in focus. This is not to exclude the particular altogether; we must know enough to know who is depicted. It is a question of balance. An example of how a baroque artist described this is given here.

It has a 20th century twist admittedly, but Carl Schmitt has done the same here. He must have been a lonely figure as a painter. He stuck to traditional principles at a time when almost nobody else still accepted them. This is the period when modernism had its heyday. For and analysis of this, readers might like to see the latest programme in the TV series, The Way of Beauty.

I like also the way that Schmitt has set up the composition in his painting. The circular sweep that contains the main forms is well handled, ntroducing enough variation (for example in the tilt of the heads of the women) to stop them looking to rigidly bound by the compositional form.

Some might feel that there is too much 'general' and not enough 'particular' for their taste (it is something that crosses my mind). Regardless, I think it is a useful thing for today's artists to see how Schmitt has approached this problem, and at the very least avoided the pitfalls of so many current naturalistic artists.

Photo courtesy of the Carl Schmitt Foundation

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