"Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit," Mar. 14-June 9, 2003, at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
Haunting portraits and erotic scenes, most of them painted in a polished Old Master style by the German artist Christian Schad, make for a fascinating show of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) at the Neue Galerie. Redolent of the permissive atmosphere of decadent Berlin during the Weimar years that immediately followed World War I, these images are often said to evoke the wary disquiet of a society without bearings.
This disquiet has to do with the contradictory mood that the works convey. On the one hand they speak in the present tense -- the 1920s -- of the heavy price of mental and emotional recovery after WW I. On the other hand, these works are contemporaneous with the rise of Nazism, and so they also speak in the future tense. What was about to happen to modern art, to Schad and the other New Objectivity artists, to sexual freedom and, of course to the so-called "decadent" elements of German society, these are the gut issues of this exhibition.
The New Objectivity painters included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz (some of whose works in portraiture are on view here), artists who contorted, distorted and exaggerated appearances well beyond the constraints of objectivity. The movement also included Schad, whose style, though not classical, was rarely caricatural. What the group shared besides Old Master finish, an eerily airless deep space, and graphic attention to figurative details, was unheimlichkeit. Analyzed by Freud in 1919, unheimlichkeit applies to situations wherein the familiar and the ominously strange are represented by the same form.
All of these traits were dangerously close to those found in the style of painting that was later to appeal to Adolph Hitler. As pointed out by Linda Nochlin after she visited the Pompidou exhibition "Les Ralismes," in which both styles were represented, "certainly the realism of the '20s was different from that of the '30s. . . . Even so, the borderlines between what one might call acceptable national versions of realism and perversions of the style [is] not always clear-cut." But, she rightly concludes, "the art of the National Socialist period in Germany does seem to isolate itself from the other realisms in that it travesties rather than reveals the nature of the times."("Return to Order," Art in America, Sept. 1981). It is, she notes, pseudo-unheimlich, another word for "kitsch."
While most of Schad's production is too disturbing to fit into the kitsch category, two paintings by him in the show, both dated 1930 (Mexican Girl [Erlinda Ponce de Leon] and Friends) come very close. In one, the subject is a naively rendered farm girl wearing an embroidered peasant blouse, while the other painting shows a close up of two young women's faces in profile -- a blond in front and a brunette behind her. In both of works, a pure, cloudless optimistic azure sky is visible behind the sitters, replacing the ominous industrial urban landscape that had, in earlier works, jarringly occupied the background of nude and elegantly dressed figures.
That Schad should have been shown together with Beckmann, Dix and Grosz under the banner of New Objectivity points more convincingly to the rediscovery of the figure in Renaissance art (Raphael and Bronzino in particular), to de Chirico's metaphysical turn of mind, and to the rejection of expressionist brushwork than to a shared politics. Indeed, on a political level, the New Objectivity painters are better known as pacifists and leftists. Dix had been a soldier in World War I and his postwar pictorial reflections on the military, on war and its effects on men's bodies and souls reached a paroxysm of cruelty only rivaled by Grosz' work. The more mystical painter Beckmann, had been a medic in World War I. Schad was the right-wing member of the group.
Schad was born into a wealthy family who supported him when he fled to Switzerland instead of going to war. His family later gave him enough of an allowance so that he could study painting in Italy. He stayed there for several years, living in Naples and Rome under Mussolini. Through the family of his new Italian wife, he received a commission to paint the Pope himself. Many more portrait commissions followed after he returned to Germany and settled in Berlin in the late 1920s.
From this sketchy description, it would appear that Grosz, Dix and Beckmann were likely to be more victimized by Hitler than Schad. And in fact they were, when Hitler included their works, though not Schad's, in his show of degenerate art in 1937. This observation does not mean that Schad was all of a piece, as the exhibition at the Neue Galerie amply reveals.
"Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit" throws us into the whirl of Schad's Weimar-era circle of acquaintances, friends and lovers, and hints at the quirky erotic relationships that made them and him tick. Men, women and androgynes parade in front of the viewers, leaving us to bemuse on the turns in their lives under the Third Reich, and on the fate of an artist who not only painted these original individuals, but taunted Weimar era bourgeois society with sexually explicit paintings and drawings.
Of the subjects we encounter as we make our way through the exhibition, most remain enigmas past the time when they sat for Schad. The artist's Italian first wife, the beautiful Marcella, died a suicide, as did the poet Ludwig Baumer. But what happened to Lillian Kennard, the English woman with short red hair parted on one side, large inexpressive brown eyes and pursed lips, whom the artist has painted wearing a black velvet evening coat indecently open in the front? What fate was in store for the Viennese entertainer Triglion, a fat-faced Jewish actress whose portrait Schad entitled Imperial Countess Triangi-Taglioni, and showed bare-armed and quasi bare-breasted, seated with her knees apart, a white ostrich feather at the ready between her thighs?
What for that matter became of Josef Matthias Hauer, Dr. Haustein and Reingold Tietz, pictured nattily dressed in three-piece suits and elegant neckties, looking amicably forward at us? Were they able, after Hitler came to power, to keep on their lips the slight Mona Lisa smiles that Schad has given them?
What happened to the pretty young women in tailored black outfits, Lotte and Sonja, here displaying their self-sufficiency by drinking and smoking alone at a caf table? Did Rasha "the black dove" and her deformed partner Agosta "the winged man," who performed together in a sideshow at a fun fair in Berlin, and are depicted by Schad together as they may have looked as they rested between their acts -- die as degenerates, Rasha because of her color and Agosta for the ribs that protruded from his deformed torso? The "sleepwalk toward destruction," as Michael Peppiatt puts it in the catalogue, of all these characters is acutely palpable in these enigmatic images.
The keenly observed portraits of single individuals that Schad left behind are only one aspect of his oeuvre. Frequently -- as in the aforementioned Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove -- more than one figure occupies his canvasses, at which point sublimated sexual symbolism (implied by an orchid with an erect pistil illogically placed next to the man or woman in the single portrait) gives way to more explicitly erotic and hence potentially "decadent" scenarios. In the most famous image, pictured on the cover of the catalogue, Schad himself, dressed in a see-through shirt, is seated at the edge of a bed; his back is turned away from a cold pensive odalisque whom one assumes he has aroused if not tupped, for her bare nipples are erect.
In another famous painting, the situation of Count St. Genois d'Aneaucourt with two figures around him, is less clear. Hands tucked in the pockets of his tight-fitting tuxedo, the classy gentleman looks out at us, ignoring the slithery vamp in a greenish sheer low-cut gown on one side of him and, on his other side, the strong-nosed transvestite probably on the prowl, wearing an equally suggestive art deco print orange dress. Sensuality in these paintings is not in the display of flesh -- Schad's nudes are not his best work, they tend to be too mannequin-like -- but in the heavy makeup of ambiguously sexed sitters, in the transparent clinging clothes that subtly reveal a handsome male torso, a well-shaped female breast, youthful buttocks, and in quasihypnotic gazes.
Apparently unafraid of censorship, Schad occasionally indulged in sexually explicit images. In a work in mostly beige and black, he painted two girls -- minimally attired -- masturbating (though not each other). In one of his many suggestive drawings, two boys are seen ardently kissing (Boys in Love). In another drawing (Père Lachaise) set inside the morgue at the Parisian cemetery known as Père Lachaise, a cleaning lady (identifiable by the abandoned mop and bucket in the foreground) amuses herself on top of a corpse.
At a time when Hitler's brown shirts were starting their rampage against the permissive Weimar Republic and its free-for-all sexual mores, one wonders what exposure such images publicly received, and whether Hitler knew of them when, according to Robert Storr, he included Schad in the 1937 exhibition of great German art in Munich (see the exhibition catalogue, p. 58).
Robert Storr, the first art historian I've found who mentions Schad's participation in the Nazi show of great German art, nevertheless goes to great lengths to exonerate him from pro-Nazi affinities. "These are not the paintings of an activist engaged in the struggle to shed accusing light on. . . Europe's descent into barbarity, but arrested moments in that decline observed by an essentially passive man, one whose gift was a preternatural ambivalence that allowed him to see without editorializing, describe without passion." (p. 68)
Was Schad pleased or horrified that his portrait paintings became part of the Nazi canon? On that issue, one must be satisfied with conjecture based on fragmentary indices. From his biography, it seems that living in Italy under the dictatorship of Mussolini posed no problem to this artist, nor did painting a classical portrait of the Pope. I have already brought up the two portrait paintings in the show that come closest to Nazi kitsch, both dated 1930. They make me think that here was an artist hedging his bets as the political winds were shifting.
Storr calls the double portrait of Rasha and Agosta, two potential victims of Hitler's madness, "the most dignified likenesses Schad ever rendered despite Agosta's obvious physical deformity, and Rasha's blackness" (p. 68). I find Schad's commentary about them, reproduced in the catalogue, merely condescending: "Both Agosta and Rasha were simple souls, good natured and like all artists, reliable and punctual" (p. 234).
As for the Schad portrait of another likely victim of Hitler, the Jewish actress Triglion, it is one of his rare caricatures. Exaggeratedly plump and fleshy, her eyes set close together, she is depicted as a Jewish stereotype, short on the classy looks that her recently acquired title of imperial countess connote. "She never sat for this picture," Schad comments. "But I have a good memory for things and people that interest me, and was able to paint her portrait without undue exaggeration" (p. 226). Was he really?
A humanist Schad was not, but does that, along with the indices I have noted, indicate pro-Nazi affinities? I think so. What, however, does my intuitive feeling -- based on fragmentary information -- do to my appreciation of his paintings? Once again the weight of biography on esthetic judgments is at issue here, as it has already played out in the case of a number of other German artists, musicians and intellectuals who lived through the transition from the Weimar years to Hitler's Germany, as well as Italian, French and Soviet artists who lived under a dictatorship. Should I condone Schad for the daring of his sexually explicit images in relation to the puritanical turn of mores during the last years of the Weimar republic and after Hitler came to power? In light of what I sense of the Fuhrer's sexuality, Hitler probably reveled in At Père Lachaise in private, while condemning it in public.