The art, literature and music of Weimar Germany in the 1920′s have long been a subject of both critical attention and popular appeal on this side of the Atlantic, and the period’s tumultuous political history, with its clash of fascist and communist ideologies, together with the era’s notoriety as a hotbed of sexual decadence, have similarly become staples in the folklore of Weimar culture. If you were too young to have felt the impact of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera when they first cast their spell, then the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Cabaret subsequently provided a more accessible account of the Weimar ethos for a larger public. As a consequence of all this, many of us carry certain images and melodies of the Weimar period in our heads, whether we like them or not.
Yet even at this late date, there are still a few figures from this fascinating period who remain to be discovered; one of them, the painter Christian Schad (1894-1982), is now the subject of an unusual exhibition at the Neue Galerie New York, which specializes in 20th-century German and Austrian art. Few museumgoers are likely even to know the artist’s name, never mind his paintings. Chistian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit , as the exhibition is called, is said to be the first one-man show to be devoted to Schad in the United States; its clear purpose is to establish him as a major talent among the group of painters who came to be called the Neue Sachlichkeit , or New Objectivity, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.
Until now, anyway, the principal figures in this group were understood to be Otto Dix and George Grosz. Some art historians have also nominated Max Beckmann for inclusion in the group, but Beckmann is too large a talent to be defined by the Neue Sachlichkeit aesthetic, which favored a mordant realism devoid of spiritual depth, intellectual complexity or mythic vision-precisely the qualities in which Beckmann’s greatest paintings abound. Christian Schad is a far more plausible candidate for membership in the group, for he excelled in creating a very cold, disabused, high-precision and high-gloss pictorial style that in its own day was sometimes called Magic Realism. (It was also, appropriately, dubbed Post-Expressionist.) The principal subject matter is a mode of portraiture that, without descending to outright caricature, takes a sharply cynical and sardonic view of its human material-including, by the way, the artist himself in his own self-portrait, easily the best painting in the current show.
To these exercises in disobliging candor, Schad brings a flawless technique in the service of a sensibility that keeps the artist’s emotions-if indeed he can be said to harbor any-firmly in check. Moreover, the paintings’ licked surfaces only add to what may be called the alienation effect of the painter’s technique, which gives to every human subject the look of an immaculately rendered porcelain mannequin. Because it’s a pictorial style so utterly at odds with the unruly passions and satirical energy to be found in the work of both Otto Dix and George Grosz, one is left wondering if such a phenomenon as the Neue Sachlichkeit ever really existed as anything but a critic’s label. If it did, then in Christian Schad’s case, anyway, it’s a style better suited to graphic art than to painting. While the drawings in the current show-many of them devoted to erotic subjects-retain a graphic vitality, the paintings, as we get to know them, seem more and more afflicted with a kind of rigor mortis.
The pity is that at the outset of his career, Schad displayed the kind of gifts that promised an uncommon mastery of a broad range of modernist styles. An early, brilliantly executed Futurist painting on a religious subject, Descent from the Cross (1916), bears an uncanny resemblance to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). There are also early painted wood-relief constructions that are clearly influenced by the work of Jean Arp, as well as woodcuts in the pre–World War I Expressionist style. Schad was a dab hand, too, at creating photograms, which he called Schadographs-of which there are many (perhaps too many) in the current show.
In the paintings that Schad will be mainly remembered for, he settled for bloodless effigies of his contemporaries, and then gave up painting altogether. By the early 1930′s, his artistic career was over, and for the remaining 50 years of his life-half a century!- he disappeared from the annals of the avant-garde. The reason for this abrupt departure from the art scene is said to be both economic and political. As an artist, Schad had always lived on a generous allowance from his wealthy father. He was apparently never obliged to make his own living-until, that is, the 1929 crash wiped out his father’s fortune. Then, too, after Hitler came to power in 1933, Schad would have been a prime candidate for the Nazis’ crackdown on “degenerate” art. Yet he somehow contrived to survive the Nazi era and to live through the other horrors of the 20th century in relative obscurity, to the age of 88. Exactly how he managed all this remains to be explained. So does the physical survival of his scattered oeuvre .
What fame his work now enjoys is a very recent development-and given the unusual circumstances of his own survival, it was probably inevitable that his art would be wildly overpraised when it came to be rediscovered. Christian Schad was never a major artist, and even in the ranks of the Neue Sachlichkeit group, his was a minor accomplishment compared to those of Dix and Grosz. And to compare his accomplishment to that of Max Beckmann is simply ridiculous, as we shall be reminded later this spring, when the Museum of Modern Art brings us its Beckmann retrospective.
Meanwhile, Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit remains on view at the Neue Galerie New York, Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, through June 9. As the museum is open at odd hours, visitors are advised to call ahead for its schedule (212-628-6200).