Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit

March 14, 2003
- June 9, 2003

The term "Neue Sachlichkeit" (New Objectivity) was first used in connection with a 1925 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. The show's organizer, Gustav Hartlaub, wrote, "I would like to exhibit those artists who have remained true-or have reaffirmed their loyalty-to positive, concrete reality." Hartlaub placed artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz in this category.

Christian Schad (1894-1982) was another leading figure of the Neue Sachlichkeit group. His sharp-focused, mysteriously erotic portraits epitomize the decadent glamour of the Weimar era. Considered as a group, Schad's portraits form an extraordinary record of life in Vienna and Berlin in the years following World War I. Yet even when his paintings are apparently at their most objective, there is nevertheless a complex theater of illusion at play.

Born in Munich, Schad moved to Zurich in 1915 to escape enlistment in the German army. He soon gained entree to the international circle of pacifist artists and writers gathered there, which included Hugo Ball and Hans Arp. The most fruitful results of this period of experimentation were the small abstract photograms Schad made in 1919, called Schadographs. The intense beauty of these luminous, poetic works results from the play between word and image and the artist's insistence on aesthetic criteria, both in his choice of objects and in his approach to composition.

In 1920, Schad returned to Germany. The country was in the midst of a devastating economic crisis, fueled by the return of thousands of dispossessed soldiers. Like many other German artists of his generation, Schad felt the need to answer the events of the day with a sober human content in his art. During this period, Schad traveled to Rome, then Naples, where he sought to perfect his technique by attending painting and drawing courses at the art academy. He was also inspired by the teeming street life of the city, drawing his models from characters he witnessed in the cafes and theaters.

Schad moved with his young family to Vienna in 1925. More than any other city, Vienna was a site for the social changes that were taking place after the war. Old aristocrats from all over the former Austro-Hungarian empire, many of whom had been stripped of their fortunes, mixed freely with bohemians and new financial barons. In his portraits of the time, Schad records the melancholy mixture of elegance and decadence that characterized this class of lost souls.

Schad's move in 1927 to Berlin gave a new clarity and focus to his work. The men and women he portrayed in the nightclubs and fairgrounds of the city reflect his interest in exotic figures, as well as his ability to convey erotic longing. After the crash of the New York stock market in 1929, Schad could no longer rely on his father's financial support, and he largely stopped painting in the early 1930s. Yet his Schadographs and portraits remain landmarks in the history of twentieth-century art.