The Art of Christian Schad

A Realist Artist of the Weimar Republic

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Detail of ‘Self-Portrait’ (1927), by Christian Schad. Tate Modern, London, UK. Source Wiki Art

There can be no doubt about it. There is something strange lurking within the frame of a typical Christian Schad painting.

Schad was a German painter associated with Dada and the New Objectivity movement. If he is not better known, then perhaps he ought to be. During the 1920s, his portraits of life in Vienna and Berlin display an extraordinary perception for the anxieties and hypocrisies of post World War I’s high-society and its demimonde.

‘Sonja’ (1928) by Christian Schad. Source Wiki Art

The portraits combine eloquence with a razor-sharp lens, lending them a seething ambiguity. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Georg Grotz, whose distaste for his society’s shortcomings can be easily judged from his art, Schad appears to pass no judgement on the figures he paints. What kind of radicalism — or appeasement — was this?

Schad was born Miesbach, Germany in 1894. The son of a ­­­prosperous lawyer, he received an allowance for half his life. He managed to avoid conscription and spent the war in Switzerland, first in Zurich and then in Geneva. He may have chosen these cities for their active role in the Dada movement; either way, Schad’s involvement with Dadaism was formalised in 1917, along with a deepening friendship with the Dada eccentric Walter Serner.

Schad’s Dadaist output is chiefly remembered by his ‘Schadographs’: abstract studies produced by placing objects directly onto photographic paper and exposing them to light, a technique later utilised in the photograms of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy.

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‘Self-portait’ (1918/19) by Georg Schrimpf. Source Wikimedia Commons

He lived in Naples for a time, then later in Vienna, and finally, from around 1928, in Berlin. It was during these years — from the mid-20s you can begin to see the influence of realist painters such as Georg Schrimpf — that his style underwent the radical revolution which eventually aligned him with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group of realist painters.

The Great War and the fledgling Weimar Republic engendered certain conditions of artists living in Germany during this time. Many, like Schad, sought a visual language that built upon absurdist satire to penetrate into a more politically assertive territory.

Christian Schad had his first one-man show in 1927 at the Galerie Würthle in Vienna. During the same year he produced one of his great works, Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt, demonstrating that as a painter in the newly awakened realist tradition, he was a decisive and articulate practitioner.

Articulate feels like just the right word. If you take a painting like the Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt, the first impression is one of vividness and lucidity. But this notion of clarity begins to sour after just a few moments. There is a patent unease to the milieu — a man dressed to the hilt staring ardently out at us; behind him a caustic confrontation between the two figures at the party— which turns the surface fluency into an exchange of hostility.

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‘Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt’ (1927) by Christian Schad. Source Wiki Art

To judge the painting as unsettling is an easy response; to say exactly why it is unsettling is more difficult. It seems to exude a “sweet bitterness” — to steal a phrase from Sartre — “a sort of nausea in the hands”. Like many of Schad’s works of this time, the eyes staring out have a sort of wilting sadness to them: carved in paint, the image is a memorial to a spirit of disillusionment.

What do we see? An evening party against the skyline of Montmartre, a soirée of the upper-classes, an aristocrat decked in a black tuxedo, a white handkerchief lolling at his breast pocket. Behind him, one partygoer dressed in a flagrant green frock stares fiercely into the eyes of another, a cross-dressing man equally immodest in a salmon-red diaphanous gown.

Schematically, the work is typical for Schad, who often showed a preference for a two-layer composition: the foremost layer consisting of the principle subject of the painting — in this case the Count — around whom the rectangular boarder of the canvas is aligned; the second layer offering a context for the subject, a setting of other characters suggestive of a broader setting, whose bodies are often spliced in two by the edge of the picture akin to a Degas racing horse.

Thus, the painting is made up of a clearly defined subject and setting, the one pulling and pushing with the other, a dialogue between a person and a place. What Schad does well is to bring each to our attention. Nearness and distance — or what there is of distance — are all defined in the same sharp focus, making the surface a panorama of overlapping junctures. This is a portrait, then, but a portrait with an inner narrative.

One of the more startling details of the painting is the figure of the transvestite: her cheeks are powdered in rouge, thick black eye-shadow surrounds the eyes, an excessively protuberant nose thrusts towards the slightly flinching woman, identified as Baroness Glasen. Positioned in front of this duel, the Count gazes out, and we are clearly meant to read his attitude in relation to the scene behind him. Thus we understand a look of not only placidity but also misgivings, a self-conscious resignation to the mores and etiquettes of this unsettling evening gathering.

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‘Self-Portrait’ (1927), by Christian Schad. Tate Modern, London, UK. Source Wiki Art

The transvestite is also interesting because she displays two of Schad’s favourite motifs: the semi-transparent material of her dress and also a symbolic flower, which in this case is embodied into the fabric. Characters wearing semi-transparent clothing appear in several on Schad’s best works of this period, most notably his Self-Portrait of 1927.

Here, the artist has painted himself in the company of a prostitute. Symbolically, we can make a literal reading of the transparent shirt as indicting the see-through or flimsy nature of the artist and his exchanges. The flower in the background is a narcissus, symbolic of vanity, rearing up like a warning sign. A further detail of the painting underlines the precariousness of the event: on the woman’s cheek is a scar, known as a sfregio, a wound inflicted as a punishment by Neapolitan criminals.

Critical appraisal

In a statement for his first one-man show in 1927 at the Galerie Würthle, Schad reflected on his respect for the Renaissance artist Raphael:

Oh, it’s so easy to turn one’s back on Raphael. Because it is so difficult to be a good painter. And only a good painter is able to paint well. Nobody will ever be a good painter if he is only capable of painting well. One has to be born a good painter. […] Italy opened my eyes about my artistic volition a capacity. […] In Italy the art is ancient and ancient art is often newer than the new art.

At the time, Schad was honing his painting into the style he is best known for: highly detailed, ominously naturalistic oil-paint portraits of the decadent facets of Weimar society. Schad’s association with the Neue Sachlichkeit group, placing him among artist such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz, further secured his art as part of this new radicalism.

But how radical was it? For the historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, such a turn back towards naturalism was nothing short of an enforced regression, carried out by “servants of an audience craving for the restoration of the visual codes of recognisability.”

Few critiques of modern figurative painting are as scathing as Buchloh’s. Another critic, Donald Kuspit, called it a “Marxist blitzkrieg” — in which Schad is personally singled out.

According to Buchloh, Schad’s veneration of Raphael was precisely indicative of the ‘syndrome’: the dubious idealisation of the painter’s craft, the eclectic appropriation of ‘history’ as if it were a free-floating commodity, as well as the rejection of modernism in favour of a ‘treacherous’ costume of tradition.

Unlike the formal experimentation of modernist practices, such as those found in Cubism, collage technique or film montage — the laying bare of the fragmentary and diverse nature of experience, an openness to the fissures and discords of the creative process — the move towards representational modes of painting might be seen as neither auspicious nor aesthetically progressive. Quite the opposite in fact: Buchloh’s diagnosis culminates, rather pessimistically, in “the bleak anonymity and passivity” of a neo-classicalism which in some way prefigured — perhaps even set a climate for — the political authoritarianism that was to come.

Is it notable, for instance, that Schad’s art was not condemned by the Nazis in their 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich, which showcased the work of some 650 modernist works of art. Can we look — post hoc — to the content of Schad’s work to seek an answer why?

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‘Halbakt’ (1929), by Christian Schad. Source Wiki Art

Schad cherishes edges. One element juts up against another like pieces of a jigsaw. To be sure, his edges once had a Cubist or Futurist dynamic. Up until about 1918, his painting style was fairly à la mode, until he found his more suited tempo in the hyper-realism of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, and during the 1920’s painted his most characteristic works. All of them achieve a sort of severe serenity: the fidgeting molecules of the Cubist idiom replaced with far more static, austere composition.

The hard painted edges help here. The alternative principle of softer-edged forms — from Leonardo’s sfumato to Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuroi — turns light into shade in gradual transition. In the case of Caravaggio the shade is usually enormous and engulfing, spreading shadow over vast portions of the picture space. With Schad, shade is almost totally absent. That’s not to say there aren’t darker colour tones; there are, but where the shift from one form to another occurs, it is usually with sharply defined boundaries. It is what Heinrich Wolfflin might have classed as the linear style: where “the outline acts as a frame in which the modelling shadows are enclosed.” Where shade does appear it is in narrow strips, much like a photograph taken with flash lighting yields only thin outlining shadows. The lighting in Schad’s paintings are not cavernous or atmospheric — no mist or fog to the elements — but level and general, and therefore probably synthetic. This is important. Any dramatic tension suggested by the scene, whether it be an anxious face or a scowling look, is stretched out and flattened by this recipe of artificial light. All of Schad’s best paintings are about the anxieties of man-made situations.

But does his alienation accord with the obedience that Buckloh describes? The art historian goes on to quote Lillian Robinson and Lise Vogel from their 1971 critique of modernist art:

“Suffering is portrayed as a personal struggle, experienced by the individual in isolation. Alienation becomes a heroic disease for which there is no social remedy. Irony masks resignation to a situation on cannot alter or control.”

It is impossible to ignore the fact that these themes are paramount in Schad’s work: disturbed figures set in splendid and tormented isolation.

Buckloh sees the tendency as a form of docile appeasement — “a cynical acceptance of […] historical limitations” — insisting that to reignite the traditional forms of representation is to seek an “illusory creation of unity and totality which conceals its historical determination.”

It is tempting to think of Schad’s contribution to the Neue Sachlichkeit oeuvre as characteristic, expressing the tawdry alienation of a society in the throws of dysfunction; but whilst artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix were interested in unstitching the course fabric of Weimar culture, Schad’s intent was in exploring the individual enveloped in it.

Schad’s works are a parody of the good life. And behind this parody, one comprehends a weird misanthropic mania: The madness maybe tragic, but it is self-knowing and therefore subversive. The Count portrait is typical: like many of his characters, he is self-interested in a manner that secures the link between ennui and narcissism.

Yet just a much, his view of individuality is as a source of power. Through his art, Schad was uniquely skilled in capturing the inner dialogue between self-assertion and self-doubt, a most modern of experiences.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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