The best of Christian Schad’s hyper-realistic, ultra-racy paintings were made between 1926 and 1929 when he was in his early thirties and in a kind of demonic state of decadent grace—his own personal 1,461 Days of Sodom in Vienna and Berlin. Two or three of these prickly beauties are among the lewdest paintings made in a century of lewd paintings. As seen in the Neue Galerie’s randy but razor-sharp retrospective of this all but forgotten German, they are unforgettable.
Among other subjects, Schad depicted naked women serenely and explicitly pleasuring themselves; lounging in post-coital torpor on tousled hotel sheets; and seated in nightclubs wearing dresses cut low enough to reveal tantalizing glimpses of aureole. He made pencil studies—taxonomies, really—of female genitalia drawn in unabashed gynecological detail and gave them titles like The Melancholic One, The Sanguine One, or The Coquettish One, the last of which features a woman’s fingers delicately parting her vaginal lips while simultaneously stroking her clitoris. It’s Dürer and Dan Savage do the Kama Sutra. There are sketches of groping lovers, nude young men lost in a deep kiss, aristocratic transvestites, a charwoman making love to a corpse in the Père Lachaise cemetery, a juvenile being circumcised by an older man, and one woman performing cunnilingus on another while two cats sniff a nearby strap-on dildo.
At times Schad’s art comes as close to being pornographic as any 20th-century paintings have. Kinkier still, he’s one of only a handful of artists who unmistakably thought like a modernist but painted conservatively. Although many of his colleagues (Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz) also participated in the German Neue Sachlichkeit or New Realism movement of the 1920s, Schad’s work veered closest to outright academicism.
Perhaps too close. While his colleagues were branded by the Nazis as “depraved,” and included in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937, Schad—whose work was as depraved as any of theirs—was embraced by the party and included in their rancid “Great German Art Exhibition” of the same year. As Robert Storr keenly points out (in one of the catalog’s seven perceptive essays), this tainted his reputation for years. Somehow Schad’s unprogressive technique masked his radicalism. Whatever it did, this stylistic tic ties him to Balthus, Bellmer, Dalí, and Magritte, maybe even to John Currin. But he is at the opposite end of the spectrum from an artist like Odd Nerdrum who thinks and paints conservatively, or Paul Cadmus and Tom of Finland, both of whom didn’t care a whit about modernism yet were far from conservative.
Whomever he’s connected to, the unusual rift between modern and unmodern, as well as the emotional blankness in Schad’s art, make for an extremely disjunctive, fantastically enticing aesthetic whiplash. Wielding puritanical, old-masterish skill, Schad combines a dandy’s sensibility with a sex fiend’s focus and jadedness. He’s a mystic of sex, a connoisseur and scientist of it. Yet sex has rarely looked more glum or repellent. There’s an aura of disconnectedness about everyone Schad paints, something frigid, bored, in shock, and cold-blooded. This is echoed in the hygienic, austere look of his work. Surfaces are smooth, satiny, and Cranach-like. Skin is alabaster or burnished like marble. People turn into statues and zombies; they look sapped and sluggish, and often do little more than stare into space or sit in dazed stupors.
In the rueful portrait of his first wife, Marcella, painted in 1926, when he was 32, a sad young woman looks warily and wearily at us. She sits alone at a window, forlornly stroking a black cat, her hair coiffed just so. There are dark circles under her eyes; her demeanor is watchful and spent. Why such a youthful beauty should be in such a funk may be revealed in the brazenly post-coital Self-Portrait painted the following year.
Here we see the dashing Schad looking moodily past us. He is posed in a silky, see-through, emerald-colored blouse. Behind him is his mistress, Maika, propped unconcernedly on a rumpled bed. She gazes into the distance. Her vividly painted nipples are erect, the veins in her breasts delicately rendered. A flush of red is visible on her cheeks, where there’s also a prominent scar. Schad claimed this was a sfregio, an Italian expression for a wound inflicted by a jealous lover. But this pinkish mark is more a stand-in for female genitalia. Furthering this Freudian twistedness is Schad’s matted and damp chest hair, painted directly where Maika’s genitals would appear if he weren’t positioned in front of her. Stranger still, the pleats and strings of his oddly feminine garment form a kind of fabric labia. A slack daffodil rounds out this portrait of seediness and desire. No wonder his wife looked so shot.
In Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt (1927) we see a dapper man in a tuxedo posed between a woman whose see-through dress exposes her breasts, and a transvestite in a similarly see-through gown. Baroness Vera Wassilko (1926) uses the same three-part composition, picturing a stylish-looking woman standing between two men, one pale-skinned, the other swarthy. Finally, in Two Girls (1928)—owned for a time by Barry Humphries, the performer known as Dame Edna—we see two semi-naked young women on a bed. Both rub their genitals. Neither seems especially aroused or happy, as if Schad—whose belt is visible on the mattress behind them—had paid or asked them to go through the motions for his own enjoyment. Either way, the painting is startling.
Schad’s career began in 1913 at the age of 19, when he enrolled at the Munich Academy. He died in Stuttgart in 1982, nearly forgotten. But really, his career spanned only a few years and ended in 1929, the year his wealthy parents lost their fortune in the stock market collapse and stopped supporting their son; he essentially stopped painting. A photogram process he began exploring in 1919, dubbed the Shadograph by Dadaist entrepreneur Tristan Tzara, snagged Schad a mention in the art history books. His amazing paintings of the late 1920s suggest he deserves more.