“Just look at it!”: Bread, Wine, and Knife (1989)

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Bread, Wine, and Knife, 1989, oil on hardboard, 7 x 9 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

This painting was Carl Schmitt’s last, done close to the end of an extraordinary life.  Yet it may just be the most ordinary of his many still lifes.

The painting is austere, with little of the stunning beauty of many of his other works.  The bottle of wine, the chunks of bread, and a kitchen knife are ordinary indeed—even stark in their separateness.  Yet this very plainness invites a second look and draws us to contemplate: the painting bespeaks the depths to be found in the ordinary.

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Madonna with Black Head-dress or Dalmatian Mother, oil on canvas, 1926, 24 x 20 in.

The fact that Schmitt gave the work no title reminds me of another painting, discussed earlier here, to which he gave two titles—“Madonna with Kerchief” and “Dalmatian Mother.”  I noted that there was no duplicity in this, because Schmitt’s vision of reality reflected his belief in Christ as God incarnate, one divine person with two complete natures, divine and human.  Schmitt never tired of pointing out how this meant that Christ was fully man in all of man’s created mystery, for the artist must deal with human life in this world—the life Christ shared with the rest of us—showing how human life in its fullest embraces all created reality. It was there, in the ordinary that you and I know so well, that he found the beauty he strove to realize in his art.

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930

This is why Schmitt was totally unabashed about inserting the sublime into the ordinary in a most natural and normal way.  Many of his madonnas were really portraits of his wife with one of their children.  His Madonna of the Milk Bottle may well be the only one that ever depicted Mary and her Child in this way.  Years ago, I asked him to paint a “St. Nicholas” for me. He was just finishing a self-portrait and simply painted in a miter and a crozier.  “That’s not St. Nicholas!” I vigorously protested, “St. Nicholas had a beard!”  He answered, “How do you know?  This will do.”  I was happy to get my painting at least, but as I walked away with it, my thought was that perhaps he was trying to tell me something: that a saint can be seen in any man who is striving to be a child of God.

Schmitt discerned the beauty of each of the stages that make up an ordinary life: we have spoken before of how he combined the lyric, epic, and dramatic aspects of life into his art.  He saw the dramatic as the key to the fullness of beauty, for it is there that life triumphs over death.  Schmitt’s faith found the prototype for this most powerfully in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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Loaf of Bread, 1947, oil on hardboard, 12 x 14 in.
A painting from fifty years earlier featuring many of the same motifs as Schmitt’s final work.

What makes this painting special, however, is not simply that it includes all three aspects that mark it as a late work, but that the painting puts that entire story before us.  The knife between the wine and the bread presents symbolically the sacrificial death in which Christ’s body was drained of its blood—almost too dramatically inserting that great “mystery of faith” into the ordinary.

All this I finally saw only when my sister told me it was the last painting he ever did, one he felt he had to do despite his failing eyesight.  It was for him a kind of summation of his life and work as an artist, and if he had given it a title, it might just have been “The Mass.”

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2011.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The wise man is never lonely

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Gertrude, pen and ink and crayon on brown paper, c. 1920

“A man may be said to be wise when he has grasped the essential absurdity of stoicism as a final mode of conduct; when, in other words, he can suffer and be happy alone (that is dependent on God, not man).  When, in other words, he is never lonely.  The man who is wise can die alone.”  (1932)