German Painter and Photographer
Summary of Christian Schad
Working across media, Christian Schad charted a unique path through the revolutionary tactics of the Dadaists in Zurich and later the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) painters in Berlin. While mingling in Dada circles, Schad made radical experiments in photography, making abstract pictures composed by arranging various objects on light-sensitive paper, exposing them to light, and capturing their outlines. This revolutionary photographic technique would later be used by László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and others. Despite this important innovation, Schad is probably best known for his later portrait paintings; he painted socialites, bohemians, and the denizens of the cabaret world. Even with his forays into abstract photography, his paintings remained resolutely realistic, following the broader return to Classicism in the interwar years.
Not as politically radical as his fellow German colleagues like Otto Dix and George Grosz, though successful during his life, Shad's reputation later languished. His contributions to Neue Sachlicheit painting have received renewed interest, however, and as contemporary photographers experiment with camareless photography, Schad's pioneering photographic process becomes more crucial in photography's historical lineage.
- A full three years before Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with the photogram technique, Schad was the first interwar avant-garde artist to make use of the process. Schad's photographic experiments most closely hewed to Dadaist tenets. He employed everyday, random objects to create his photograms, underscoring the desire to break down the barriers of traditional artistic subject matter, and his abstract compositions have a mysterious, dream-like quality to them that connects them to Surrealism as well.
- While Schad was influenced by the abstractions of Cubism and Futurism, he found his greatest influences in the Italian Old Masters, such as Raphael. After World War I, Schad participated in Interwar Classicism, returning to more traditional styles of realism and classicism to handle the traumas of war and the changes in society. Schad's painting during this period veered more towards Magical Realism than the biting satire of other painters of the era.
- Schad used a cool, precise realism to portray his subjects. While one senses the individualities of the people Schad paints, one also senses that he is trying to capture the type, or roll, the person plays in society, most notably the "New Woman", who was an androgynous bohemian, who was sexually liberated and career oriented.
Progression of Art
Descent from the Cross
An early abstract painting of a religious subject, Christian Schad's 1916 Descent from the Cross reflects the influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism. Comprised of a series of interconnected facets, the nearly monochromatic painting appears fragmented and abstracted, almost to the point of unrecognizability. On closer inspection the vertical figure of Christ, rendered in lighter tones, becomes visible, as do the figures that surround him, which appear like disembodied heads. Limbs and other features dissolve into a series of intersecting planes. The head of Christ, though difficult to make out, is a portrait of his friend Walter Serner. Schad later described his choice of a monochromatic palette as "the single possible expression of our unreserved opposition to the war, which only allowed for an either-or attitude."
Always content to be contrary, Schad was never a strict adherent to any single style or subject. Instead, he borrowed elements from various sources in order to create his own style that incorporated allegory and symbolism. Descent from the Cross demonstrates the ambiguity of meaning evident in many of Schad's paintings. It resists strict categorization as either a religious painting or a portrait and hovers somewhere between the two. Although unusual for Schad, religious subjects were not entirely uncommon among Expressionist and other avant-garde artists. Max Beckmann painted the same subject in 1917 as a response to his experience fighting in World War I, and, indeed, Schad's depiction is equally reflective of his experience of the war.
Oil on canvas - Christian Schad Museum
Onéirodynie en Kova
Schad produced Onéirodynie en Kova, a photogram, by placing bits of detritus, string, paper, and scraps of cloth on a sheet of light-sensitive paper. It was then covered with glass and placed on the windowsill of his basement apartment to expose. Once satisfied with the result, he fixed them and cut the photographic paper in order to "free them from the convention of the square." These small-scale cameraless photographs are reminiscent of collages in their layering of objects and forms, reflecting Zurich Dada's interests in abstraction, chance operations, and the use of new methods and materials. In bringing together photography and the stuff of everyday life, newsprint and other discarded objects, the cameraless photographs were decidedly anti-bourgeois and anti-art, which was in keeping with Dada's iconoclastic approach to art making.
Although use of cameraless photography dates back to the very origins of photography, Schad innovated the process as an avant-garde art form. His photograms predate the earliest use of the process by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, who came to cameraless photography a few years later. A group of these works were included in the groundbreaking Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism (1936). It was then that Tzara named them "Schadographs," as a play on the artist's name and their shadow-like character. His cameraless photographs were an important Dada discovery that would pave the way for future experimentation with the process.
Schadograph [photogram] - Kunsthaus Zürich
Composition en M
One of Schad's most important Dada innovations, Composition en M is an abstract relief sculpture constructed from a series of jagged wooden planes. The wood pieces, cut by a carpenter to the artist's specification, were painted and arranged with other objects, including a necklace and several small metal balls. Produced during Schad's brief affiliation with Zurich Dada, Schad explained that the wood reliefs were made when his "penchant for everything lying around on the streets, in shop displays, in cafes, even in the waste bins was at its height." The abstracted forms in Composition en M are reminiscent of Hans Arp's abstract constructions, such as Untitled (Forest) (1917), and Kurt Schwitters's Merz collages. The reliefs similarly transcend the boundaries of a single medium by incorporating random objects associated with modern life. In its use of nontraditional sculptural materials and polychrome, Schad's relief sculptures reflect the influence of Ukranian avant-garde sculptor Alexander Archipenko.
Art historian Leah Dickerman notes that these works were "developed on the principle of creating an object neither rarified through materials nor trained artistic technique by incorporating components associated with machine technology - heavy enamel commercial paints, mass-produced metal hardware, and bits of metallic paper." Schad's early interest in abstraction and the use of detritus as fodder for his art was also evident in his cameraless photographs from the same period. As their sculptural equivalent, Composition en M reflects Schad's understanding of Dada as "the very idea of unrestricted freedom, of having the right to do everything, of having the power to do, to create, without having to feel yourself menaced by the Damoclean sword of dogma."
Painted wood relief with object-montage - Kunsthaus Zurich
Maria and Annunziata 'From the Harbour'
Schad's 1923 painting, Maria and Annunziata 'From the Harbour,' depicts two Neapolitan actresses from the Rossini theater posed against the railing of a theater box. Remarkably flat in its representation of the figures, the close-up, fragmentary view is suggestive of a photographic snapshot. In this early realist painting, among his first in the New Objectivity style, Schad demonstrates a technical mastery in his handling of light, shadow, and color and his attention to the minutest of details in the rendering of clothing and flesh. Painted when Schad was living in Naples in 1923, Maria and Annunziata reflects his turn to realism and his interest in creating detailed depictions of contemporary society. In Naples, Schad visited cafés and theaters with his friend and former Dada colleague Walter Serner, observing the city's street life and the children and gypsies that populated its run-down streets. Less glamorous than other Italian cities, the southern Italian city of Naples was not frequently visited by artists and writers.
By 1923, Schad had created a new realist style that drew on New Objectivity painting, such as that of his school friend Georg Schrimpf, and the work of Old Masters like Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo. He was particularly drawn to their clarity of form and use of color. He later wrote of this new style, "And so I succeeded ... in painting once again in the way all of them painted who are still venerated as masters."
Curator Sabine Rewald notes that the portraits from this early period are unapproachable and thus "reminiscent of the coolly distant likenesses of the Florentine court painter Bronzino and other Renaissance and Mannerist masters." She further suggests that "Schad employed the forms of earlier aristocratic portraiture to convey the remoteness, the inaccessibility of the modern individual."
Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Christian Schad's 1927 Self-Portrait depicts the artist as an aloof lover seated on a rumpled bed in a transparent green shirt tied at the chest. Whether this transparency is intended to suggest that his interest in the woman next to him is only skin-deep or to demonstrate the virtuosity of his painting is difficult to say. The male figure looks absently to the left, not quite meeting the viewer's gaze. A nude woman with modern, stylish short hair and angular features is shown in profile, reclining behind him. The vertical scar on her cheek - a sfregio, which Schad learned about in Naples - "was always inflicted by a jealous husband or lover, and displayed as a visible sign of the passion she inspired." The enlarged narcissus flower next to the bed is symbolic of their self-absorption. The figures, which appear flattened and without contour, are set against a backdrop with a fictive Paris cityscape, variations of which appeared in many of his paintings from the period. Meticulously painted, the glazing technique and slick surface evident in Schad's Self-portrait are reminiscent of Old Master paintings, but the subject is entirely in keeping with New Objectivity painting and the movement's harsh and sardonic depictions of contemporary society.
The allegorical content in Schad's Self-Portrait is characteristic of his tendency to bring together disparate elements from a range of sources to suggest enigmatic new meanings. As he later said, "My paintings are never illustrative... if anything, they are symbolic." Indeed, they are composed, according to Schad, "of physical and psychological fragments, as well as of things seen and imagined." In this instance, the influence of his friend Walter Serner is evident. Art historian Sabine Rewald has suggested that Serner's stories "move in a twilight zone of chilly eroticism and crime and are told in laconic, clinical voice, [which] find clear echoes in the content and style of Schad's best ambiguous, erotic paintings." Although Schad was initially unknown among German curators and critics when New Objectivity painting came to the fore in 1925, Schad's Self-Portrait, his most famous work from the 1920s, is now an icon of New Objectivity painting and the cool and distant expressions that characterized his work from this period.
Oil on wood - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
An iconic image of 1920s Berlin, Sonja is a striking portrait of a young secretary seated alone at the Romanisches Café, a prominent meeting place for artists and writers. Depicted as the quintessential "New Woman," with short hair and fashionable dress, she cultivates an intentional androgyny. The black dress, with sheer sleeves, low neck, and pink flower, sets off her pale skin and large dark eyes. These carefully painted details allowed Schad to demonstrate his particular brand of realism and his precise attention to the rendering of flesh and clothing. The young woman sits at a table smoking a cigarette from a long elegant holder. Next to her arm on the table is a pack of Camel cigarettes, along with a tube of lipstick and a small black compact, all of which suggest that she is a modern woman fully in control of her own image and body. Her cool confidence and blank stare further reinforce her modernity. She is alone and content to be so. As curator Sabine Rewald writes, "Sonja represents the emancipated, independent women of the time, who, as a consequence of World War I, had joined the workforce all over Europe."
Schad met Sonja through his friend Felix Bryk after his move to Berlin in 1928. Attracted by her apparent androgyny, he positioned her as if in a "stage set," with the requisite props and supporting cast. Flanked by two unidentified figures who are cut off by the frame, she dominates the center of the picture. On the right, a man in a red coat and bow tie sits a piano, while on the left, a hunched figure with balding head and black coat sits behind her. The balding figure is the famous German poet and cabaret critic, and frequent visitor to the Romanisches Café, Max Hermann-Neisse, who Schad knew from his time in Zurich. He was acquainted with several New Objectivity painters and appeared in at least two paintings by George Grosz in the mid- to late-1920s. Despite the painting's realism, it was not painted from life, but from memory and is thus emblematic of Schad's interest in representing types rather than individuals. Sonja thus reflects the experience of 1920s Berlin café society and the perceived disillusionment, isolation, and alienation of life in the modern city.
Oil on canvas - Staatliches Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
Schad imbues this scene of a surgery with a still eeriness. Employing the precision and details of a 17th-century Dutch painting, Schad portrays a patient on a table, surrounded by doctors and nurses as surgical instruments lay atop his torso. Despite the bloody nature of surgeries, the only blood the viewer sees is the redness of some indistinct organ in the middle of the patient's body, and a couple of bloody-tipped cotton swabs. Physician Giorgio Bordin and art historian Laura Polo D'Ambrosio observe, "The patient's body is completely masked by a sheet scattered with forceps. The deathly immobility of the scene transforms the individual into an object used to execute a professional performance and gives the painting a disturbing effect, almost as though the viewer were witnessing a profound enigma."
Despite the collective nature of the surgical team, each individual seems self-contained and not attentive to those around him. The one exception is the woman at the top of the painting, dressed in blue and wearing a white habit. Her hands rest on the patient's head, and disturbingly, the patient's eye seem slightly open. The radiant light of soft pinks, whites, and blues that surrounds her head suggests something like a halo or aura, perhaps suggesting her spiritual role in guiding the patient through the operation. As was typical of his process, Schad used friends as models for this painting: his partner Maika for the nurse and his friend Felix Bryk, who was an entomologist and journalist, for the patient.
Oil on canvas - Municipal Gallery in Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau Munich
Biography of Christian Schad
Christian Schad was born to an affluent family in Miesbach (Upper Bavaria), Germany, in 1894. The family moved to Munich shortly after he was born. His father Carl Schad was a prominent lawyer, while his mother's family owned several successful breweries in Bavaria. Artistic ability and ingenuity ran in Schad's family. His mother was related to the German Romantic painter Carl Philipp Fohr and his paternal grandfather was credited with bringing the bicycle to Germany. His parents encouraged his abilities in art and music from an early age, exposing him to art and culture on family trips to Italy and other regional art centers.
Early Training and Work
Schad's affluent upbringing made it possible for him to forego more traditional pursuits in favor of life as an artist. Spurred by his early exposure to the arts, he enrolled at the Munich Art Academy in 1913, but he soon became disenchanted with the academy's conservatism and left to open his own studio in Munich. In defiance of his academic training, he began producing woodcuts, several of which were included in the 1915 exhibition of the New Munich Secession and later included in the Expressionist journal Die Aktion. In the years leading up to World War I, he spent time in the Netherlands and had plans to move to England.
A pacifist, strongly opposed to war, Schad fled Germany with the outbreak of World War I to avoid being sent to the frontlines. With the help of his family's connections and a sympathetic doctor, he faked a heart condition and left Germany in 1915 for a Swiss sanatorium. Other German painters of his generation - Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Rudolf Schlichter - served in the war and were forever changed by their experience. Seeking refuge from the war, Schad went to Zurich, where he found, in his words, "a peaceful island in an ocean of arrogant nationalism and ugly stupidity." In Zurich he met a prominent group of exiled artists - Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and Emmy Hennings - who together formed the fledgling Zurich Dada group. On arrival, he immediately befriended Walter Serner, a writer and doctor of law who was forced to flee Berlin after forging a medical certificate for Expressionist Franz Jung. He also mingled during these years with artists, writers, and politicians at Café Landolt, including Ukranian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, Flemish artist Frans Masereel, and French socialist and anti-war activist Henri Guilbeaux.
Although he was initially skeptical of the group and their various activities, Schad was converted to Dada after his move to Geneva in 1916. Forming a Dada outpost in the French-speaking city, he and Serner participated actively in Dada events, which, in Geneva, included provocative actions and performances by a particularly nihilistic Serner. On one evening, at an exhibition of Schad's work at a Geneva gallery, Serner gave such a long-winded and infuriating speech that the audience tore Schad's work from the walls and threw it to the ground. His increased involvement with the Dada group in the late 1910s brought him into communication with fellow Dadaists Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara in Paris. Around this time, he collaborated with Serner on the publication of Sirius, a literature review, for which he produced a series of monochromatic Expressionist woodcuts in black ink.
Schad was always something of an outlier in the insular Dada group. Despite his marginal position, he made several important contributions to the Dada movement: he produced a series of abstract sculptural reliefs (in wood), innovated use of the photogram (cameraless photography), and made posters for the First Dadaist World Congress in 1919. His use of the photogram technique was particularly influential for other avant-garde artists. With the end of the war, Schad left Zurich in 1920 and returned to Munich, ending his brief affiliation with Zurich Dada.
In the years between 1920 and 1925, Schad spent much of his time in Italy. He traveled to Rome, where he met Italian Futurist painter Enrico Prampolini, and attended the salons of Futurist photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia. With Serner, the two friends would live for a time in Naples, where Schad began to paint people and scenes with a realism not seen in his previous work. During these years he traveled to Munich, reconnecting with his friend and fellow artist Georg Schrimpf, who had also begun working in a realist style that drew heavily on Italian painting. In 1923, back in Italy, he married Marcella Arcangeli, the daughter of a professor in Rome. They had a son the following year. Together they traveled to Paris and Munich but eventually returned to Italy, settling in Naples. While in Italy, he received a commission to paint Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Schad moved his family to Vienna in 1926, where he became a society painter for bohemians, the newly rich, and the disaffected aristocrats from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had lost their fortunes after the war. After two years, he divorced his wife, leaving his family in Vienna, and moved to Berlin in 1928 with the help of Serner. He found his stride in the city and commenced his most productive artistic period. Although his work is now associated with New Objectivity painting, he was not included in the famous 1925 Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in Mannheim, nor was he interested in the social critique or political satire that characterized the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz. He was, however, interested in painting Berlin's various "types," much like Dix and photographer August Sander. His work, which looked to Italian painting for inspiration, was more closely aligned with Magic Realism and its tendency toward classicism.
Not long after his arrival in Berlin, he met Swedish journalist and naturalist Felix Bryk. With Bryck, he attended late-night bars, circuses, medical procedures, and Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexology. Always fascinated by a broad cross section of society, these late-night outings provided Schad with a vast array of characters that he would incorporate into his paintings and drawings in the late 1920s - lesbians, transvestites, prostitutes, bankrupt aristocrats, artists, and writers.
Despite producing some of his best-known work in Berlin, he found little commercial or financial success during his time there. By the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Schad became increasingly interested in Far Eastern philosophy, particularly Taoism and Zen Buddhism, taking Chinese language and calligraphy classes at the University of Berlin. He also began to have monetary problems and found himself isolated in the years leading up to rise of the National Socialists in 1933. Supported for much of his life by his father, Schad never had to rely on the sale of his paintings, but after the market crash of 1929, he was forced to earn a living. To support himself, he worked for a Bavarian brewery and took commissions for painted portraits.
His early Dada work brought him unexpected success in 1936, when he was included in Alfred H. Barr's New York exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the fact that many of his Dada and Expressionist colleagues were deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis and numerous of his Berlin paintings demonstrated a decided preference for the erotic, Schad nonetheless submitted a group of paintings to the Great Exhibition of German Art. Mounted by the Nazis to counter the Degenerate Art exhibition, the Great Exhibition of German Art opened in Munich in 1937. He showed two paintings at the exhibition, a portrait of a woman and a Paris cityscape. With this exhibition, Schad largely withdrew from the Berlin art world. Following the bombing of his studio in 1943, Schad moved to Aschaffenburg, in Northwest Bavaria. Together with girlfriend, Bettina Mittelstädt, he was able to save many of the paintings from his bombed studio. The two were married later that year. In Aschaffenburg, he was commissioned by the city to produce a copy of Matthias Grünewald's Stuppach Madonna (1518), which provided much-needed income and allowed him to survive the final years of the war.
In 1962, Schad moved to the Bavarian city of Keilheim. In the 1950s, he had begun a new series of realist paintings that featured his wife Bettina Schad, many of which were laden with allegory and symbolism. In the 1960s, Schad returned to cameraless photography, producing a new series of "Schadographs" at the behest of famed photography historian Helmut Gernsheim. In the final decades of his life, Schad participated in numerous exhibitions on Dada and New Objectivity, as well as a large-scale retrospective in Milan in 1977. Christian Schad died in Stuttgart, Germany, at the age of 88.
The Legacy of Christian Schad
Despite his early appearance in the exhibition Fantastic Art: Dada, Surrealism (1936), Schad is not well known as a painter or as a photographer. His most important work, first with Zurich Dada and later in New Objectivity painting, was produced during a brief period between 1918 and 1929. A renewed interest in interwar photography, the Dada movement, and the photogram technique has shed new light on his importance to these histories.
Contemporary interest in alternative photographic processes has also initiated a resurgence in the photogram technique, which has led such artists as Thomas Ruff, Adam Fuss, and Marco Breuer to look anew at cameraless photography. In the immediate post-war period, his New Objectivity painting was largely ignored due to its connections to Nazi-approved realist painting. In the last several decades, however, his work has benefited from the scholarly revival of New Objectivity painting, which brought his cool objective realism of 1920s Berlin and Vienna to new audiences. In 2019, a museum dedicated to his work will open in Aschaffenburg, a town just Southeast of Frankfurt, where Schad eventually settled, which will certainly bring him a wider audience.