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 - Tate Modern, London
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