Few Americans have passionately collected German modernism, and as a result, our museums have only patchy representations of this essential movement. The remarkably handsome Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue—a newish museum that shows German and Austrian works—is already deepening our awareness of this art. The current, sometimes kinky exhibit at the Neue Galerie, Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit, focuses upon a significant but little-known figure. A man of elegant erotic melancholy, Schad (1894–1982) made some of the most memorable portraits of his period. He fits to perfection a certain idea about Weimar. He would be the aristocratic man dressed in black tie at the cabaret in Berlin, wistfully, knowingly smoking a cigarette as Marlene Dietrich took the stage in The Blue Angel.
In order to escape serving in World War I, Schad, who came from a prosperous German family, moved to Zurich in 1915. He became part of the circle of experimental artists and writers in that city who were interested in Dada; his best-known works from that time were whimsical little abstractions called Schadographs, which he created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper. During the twenties, as he struggled to find a way of painting that suited him, Schad began to paint portraits in a meticulous, intensely focused style related to Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objec- tivity—a movement par-ticularly associated with George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann. (In June, the Museum of Modern Art will present a retrospective of the work of the powerful Beckmann.) He traveled to Rome and Naples, then settled in Weimar Berlin in 1927. His portraits were painted during a period of less than ten years. As the Depression took hold and Fascism spread, Schad—who could no longer count upon his father for financial help—retreated to the country and seemed to subside as an artist. He worked intermittently but never again made important pictures.
Organized by Jill Lloyd and Michael Peppiatt, this show—a smaller version of an exhibit last year at the Musée Maillol in Paris—contains more than 100 paintings, drawings, and Schadographs. (The curators have rightly concentrated upon the portraits rather than upon the artist’s more peripheral achievements.) In the portraits, there’s something hard, etched, and crystalline about the sinuous line used to describe women. At the same time, they have big, soft, pooling eyes: They study the world with the intense but impassive stare of a cat. In his best pictures, Schad works this edge between hard and soft, sensitive and tough, to fashion a lush atmosphere of the young and world-weary. Often, he will include a voluptuous flower in the image, a symbol, perhaps, of the inner life that cannot quite find expression in a degraded world. The most memorable women in Schad’s paintings are hothouse stems—orchids with some dampness on the petals.
Some of Schad’s work is as perverse as anything you will find in Chelsea. More so, in fact—for the further shores of sex were less familiar then. One picture presents a pair of women masturbating; another, two boys passionately kissing. But that’s Kansas compared with Schad’s drawing of a lesbian couple with a dildo and a pair of cats. (You will have to visit the Neue Galerie to get the finer details.) Perhaps the strangest work on display is called “From the Five Humours,” a bizarrely academic series that assigns to the female genitals various old-fashioned “humours”Â—such as The Sanguine One, The Melancholic One, and The Coquettish One. Did Schad think male genitals also had different humours? Although he generally painted women, Schad also made a few pictures of men, notably the unforgettable Dr. Haustein. The elegantly attired doctor, seemingly steeped in things that cannot be said, stares quizzically at the viewer. Behind him looms a ghostly shadow smoking a cigarette.