On the year of his death in 1995, Karl Schrag painted this self-portrait. It’s distinctly unfinished. From the lack of pigment on the piece as a whole, to the sunflowers in his painting in a painting, to the very color of his flesh, the piece appears half-done. It’s a depressing thought – that as the artist sets down his palette, so he sets down his life. Or that as he leans on the palette, barely upheld by its thin wood, it is only his livelihood which keeps him erect and alive. A tall, upright figure looms behind, a striking contrast to the leaning artist. Perhaps as age pulls the man from life, so too Schrag has withheld his typical thick and deep pigments from this piece.
Yet there is a playful dash of red upon Death’s feathered hat. His sunflowers’ petals and leaves do not droop but rather are open. His signature is a bright orange. Under those etched wrinkles in his face, there is a very Mona Lisa-esque expression. Is it a smile?
Perhaps this was not a man who merely resigned or submitted to death. He has accepted his fate, but also has maintained the strength of his identity from birth until death. The piece is deeper than mere sadness of death. It is alive with Schrag’s humor quite evident in this painting. This is the last statement of Karl Schrag: even in the presence of death, a man is still very much alive.
Holly Huey – St. John’s College student
~ The Karl Schrag: Memories and Premonitions exhibit ends on October 16 ~
Photo credit: Karl Schrag, Presence, 1995. Gouache on board. Loan, Courtesy of Peter and Jeanette Schrag.