New York

Clockwise from left: Christian Schad, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), 1927, oil on wood, 29 7/8 x 24 1/4“. Christian Schad, Schwestern (Sisters), ca. 1929, pen and ink on paper, 7 1/8 x 10 
3/8”. Christian Schad, Liebende Knaben (Boys in love), 1929, silverpoint on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 1/4“. Christian Schad, Der Pfiff um die Ecke (Whistling round the corner), 1927, ink and watercolor on paper, 6 1/8 x 3 7/8”.

Clockwise from left: Christian Schad, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), 1927, oil on wood, 29 7/8 x 24 1/4“. Christian Schad, Schwestern (Sisters), ca. 1929, pen and ink on paper, 7 1/8 x 10
3/8”. Christian Schad, Liebende Knaben (Boys in love), 1929, silverpoint on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 1/4“. Christian Schad, Der Pfiff um die Ecke (Whistling round the corner), 1927, ink and watercolor on paper, 6 1/8 x 3 7/8”.

Christian Schad

Neue Galerie New York

Clockwise from left: Christian Schad, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), 1927, oil on wood, 29 7/8 x 24 1/4“. Christian Schad, Schwestern (Sisters), ca. 1929, pen and ink on paper, 7 1/8 x 10 
3/8”. Christian Schad, Liebende Knaben (Boys in love), 1929, silverpoint on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 1/4“. Christian Schad, Der Pfiff um die Ecke (Whistling round the corner), 1927, ink and watercolor on paper, 6 1/8 x 3 7/8”.

Christian Schad’s self-portrait of 1927, included in curators Jill Lloyd and Michael Peppiatt’s large retrospective of the artist’s work at the Neue Galerie in New York, is a haunting image that—partly because of the picture surface’s seductive smoothness and partly due to the subject matter’s dreamlike perversity—persists in the mind’s eye long after the actual experience of viewing the painting. The artist sits in the foreground with uneasy authority. Behind him lies one of the century’s scariest female nudes, in harsh profile, dark-haired, hawk-nosed, her facial scar providing a kind of slant rhyme to the laced-up front of the artist’s skintight shirt. Far from being merely photographic or documentary, the painting is replete with preternaturally clear, fetishistic detail: the weird purple plaid of the quilt on which the couple have apparently just made love; the dirt under the woman’s fingernails, and the little black ribbon carefully knotted around her wrist; the hair under her armpit and on the artist’s own chest; the glimpse of rolled red stocking top at the left margin of the picture; and the large, vulvalike flower that spurts up from behind the woman’s right shoulder, its pinkish softness contrasting with her pointed, erect nipples. Everything has to do with imaginative manipulation; and nearly everything is sexually suggestive, at once seductive and repellent, without any sense of triumphant masculinity. The female, recumbent though she may be, is fiercely dominant; the man has a worried look, his soft body and shirt adding to his ambiguous status, neither nude nor dressed. (Aqueous green in color, the shirt provides a frail, see-through armor, a second, more refined epidermis.) In the background, a Parisian night scene, based on picture postcards collected by the artist, glimmers fitfully. Like the artist, the city’s image is veiled, and, like the rest of the picture, it is an imaginative construct, not painted from nature. And so the painting offers clear evidence that the history of modern art, far from being a Greenbergian one-way street to greater and greater abstraction, comprises many important byways, including one kind of representation in which the social and the psychological tensions of contemporary life played a dominant role—in short, the Neue Sachlichkeit of Schad and his contemporaries.

In Vienna, where the self-portrait was painted, Schad’s sensibility and subject matter began to converge in some of his most memorable portraits. But leading up to this moment was the artist’s prototypical journey through the variegated possibilities of early-twentieth-century experimentation. He first moved through Dadaist circles in Zurich and Geneva, where he “invented” abstract photograms using scraps of paper and textiles, later dubbed “Schadographs” and also on view here; he had a short career in Italy, where Renaissance painting captivated him. After Vienna, Schad traveled to Berlin, where, ultimately, he found himself both personally and artistically. His circle of friends and acquaintances in the city was wide and fairly eclectic, including both down-at-the-heels aristos and vanguard writers and artists, and provided him with subject matter for realist work. Schad also portrayed less well known sitters, especially women, simply because their looks and character captivated him. One such portrait is Sonja, 1928, in which the beautiful protagonist (a secretary of Schad’s acquaintance) sits in the trendy Romanisches Café, flanked on either side by fragmentary representations of well-known intellectuals: the poet Max Herrmann-Neisse, identifiable by his oddly shaped ear and hunched back; and Schad’s friend, the journalist and entomologist Felix Bryk. The attention centers on the sitter’s modern independence and androgynous appeal, making the painting an up-to-date portrait a l’apparat. The young woman’s emancipated status is signaled not only by her lack of escort but by her packet of Camels, cigarette holder, bucket of champagne, Eton crop, elegant black gown, and her direct, if somewhat hooded, gaze, seductive yet forceful, at the spectator.

On occasion Schad turned to Berlin’s fringes. In one of his most sinister and tightly structured works, Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove, 1929, the protagonists are artistes in the Uncle Pelle circus: Agosta, a freak, and Rasha, a black female snake performer. Confronting the pale ripples of Agosta’s crippled torso and Rasha’s dark imperviousness, one thinks of Diane Arbus’s fascination with physical deformity and marginality, but Schad’s take is more deliberately aestheticized. Agosta is enthroned in an armchair; Rasha sits passively at his feet. Schad usually created his portraits from memory, but two eloquent life drawings in charcoal exist for this work. Schad, incidentally, was a brilliant draftsman, and in this show a series of line drawings, enriched by ink spray, captures all the seedy melancholy and violence of Berlin’s lower depths with linear acerbity.

The exhibition proves that many different voices—and not all of them abstract or Duchampian—participated in that revolutionary reinvention of visual languages that marked the early twentieth century. Schad’s modern realism could never have come into being before Cubism and collage, to which it nevertheless offers an apparent challenge. Schad manipulates modernist deconstructive compositional effects to intensify his new, sinister version of reality. His portraiture and representational work reveal the place of the unconscious, the aberrant and fetishistic, in the construction of experience. Looking forward, we might say that his work indeed predicts darker things to come.

Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.