Sex and the City: The Erotic Dreamworld of Christian Schad

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From the mid to the late 1920s, the German painter Christian Schad produced a group of paintings like little else in modern art. Possessing the translucent clarity of Renaissance portraits, they project a nighttown vision of Mitteleuropa worldlings, bathed in a mood of obsessive eroticism. The oeuvre of a great many artists contains an X portfolio, so to speak, of erotic images. But I can think of no painter of Schad's stature whose work, in the few years in which he touched greatness, was so totally given over to erotomania that everything associated with the personages he portrays--a flower, an accessory, a human companion--seems to signal preferences in some exotic code of sexual specialization.

Some ten years earlier, as a member of the Dada movement, Schad attracted a certain notice through a body of work that could not contrast more vividly with the extraordinary paintings of the 1920s. It consisted of small experimental photograms in which bits of fabric and scraps of paper were arranged in abstract compositions on photosensitive paper that was then exposed to light. Through one of the vagaries of art history, the Museum of Modern Art acquired several of the "Schadographs," as Schad's photograms were dubbed by the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, and the artist's reputation has rested almost entirely on these early avant-garde efforts. The paintings, meanwhile, have until now remained almost totally unknown. This gives a particular excitement to the exhibition "Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit," at the Neue Galerie in New York City, where they are being shown for the first time in America.

Neue Sachlichkeit means "new objectivity," and it designates an art movement that took place mainly in Germany and Italy in the mid-1920s. The term entered the discourse of art writing in 1925, in connection with a famous exhibition organized in Mannheim, Germany, by Gustav Hartlaub, a curator of some note. The title was originally to have been "Post Expressionism." Sachlichkeit, or objectivity, contrasts fairly exactly with "subjectivity," which everyone would have associated with Expressionism, an art of inner feeling. German Expressionism was one of the great Modernist movements, and Schad himself belonged to it before he converted to Dada. The term "objectivity" suggests that the artists involved were bent on representing things as they really appear, but there is more--and less--to the movement than that. Schad's paintings, for example, seem to be objective transcriptions of actual persons in real settings--bedrooms and cafes. They have an almost clinically photographic truth, which can easily mislead us into thinking that that is all they are.

In fact, the heavy spice of sexual obsession in Schad's paintings is almost like the aura of religious devotion that Renaissance painters used to transform their models into saints and martyrs, rather than an atmosphere that he actually encountered in the cabaret precincts of Berlin and Vienna. The people he portrayed, often from memory, were vehicles for metaphoric transformation. "My pictures are never illustrative," he wrote in a caption for his 1927 masterpiece, Self-Portrait With Model. "If anything, they are symbolic." That symbolism gives these works the uncanniness of things dreamt. There are three mysteries connected with these extraordinary works: how anyone who made the photograms could have made them; why, after the brief period in which he achieved greatness in the late 1920s, Schad did nothing of significance for the remainder of his long life; and, finally and most important, the mystery of these amazing pictures themselves. To explain that, we need to relate them somewhat to the Schadographs, which belong to an earlier moment of Schad's life.

As a young man, Schad left Germany for Switzerland in 1915, ostensibly for reasons of health, but mainly in order not to be called up as part of Germany's war effort. There he fell in with the Zurich Dadaists. …