Christian Schad painted socialites and sex workers, quack doctors and modernist writers, boys kissing and women masturbating—scenes that a Cabaret fan might associate with the decadence of Weimar-era Berlin. But the Christian Schad Museum, which opened this past June in the Upper Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, aims to situate the artist and his work outside these limited geographical and chronological bounds. Three floors, built into a renovated 17th-century Jesuit college, present a sizable portion of the more than 3,000 works and documents owned by the Christian Schad Foundation that span the artist’s life, 1894 to 1982. Perusing the materials, one sees that Schad kept a close eye on not just dynamic late-Weimar culture but also the artistic and ideological forms that flowered (and in some cases, withered) before and after.
Exemplary of the late 1920s New Objectivity style—which turned realist attention and technique to the surface details of urban experience—Schad’s meticulous pictures of that period capture the social diffusion of nightlife in Berlin, where the artist lived from 1927 to 1943. Like many of his peers, Schad sometimes treated painting as a kind of sociology, focused on cataloging generalized social “types.” But Schad’s sitters also stand out as individuals, for he painted them with luxuriant clarity and rendered outlines and shadows in a way that separates them from their surroundings. He often added symbolic touches, like flowers, and imported backgrounds (Italian or Parisian cityscapes) that suited his subject. In each case, he subjected his isolated figure to what can feel like a clinical assessment or a lascivious gaze. Or both. The portraits invite confrontation, consumption, communion: exchanges at once depleting and stimulating, sexual and spiritual. Reviewing a retrospective of Schad’s early work for Art in America in 2004, the critic Brooks Adams referred to Schad’s “soul-sick” Weimar paintings as “secular altarpieces.”
Tellingly, Adams noted “a certain disinclination on the curators’ part” to discuss the artist’s life and work after 1930. In turn, he repeated what has been the dominant Schad narrative: that during World War II he “barely eked out a living,” as Adams wrotes, and left “no evidence that he specifically collaborated with the Nazis.” It’s easy to imagine that an artist who painted scenes of queer sex would have run afoul of Nazi officials. But he didn’t, and the new museum aims to set the record straight. During the war, Schad was in fact a wealthy, “sought-after painter,” as a wall text explains in the first gallery. He moved to Aschaffenburg from Berlin in 1943, commissioned by the town’s mayor, an SS official, to reproduce a 16th-century Catholic altarpiece by local hero Matthias Grünewald. Four watercolor studies and a full-scale sketch for it hang in the opening gallery beside two stark portraits composed a bit like Schad’s Weimar icons: sharp, a little romanticized, with calm expressions and, in this instance, forest backdrops. Painted in 1943, the pictures depict a provincial factory owner and his wife, not city socialites.
Marxian critics of the late Weimar period often contested that New Objectivity reinforced an outdated and pernicious ideal of bourgeois individualism. Schad, it would seem, would have been a key offender, privileging a form (portrait painting) and content (urban nightlife) at odds with certain progressive imperatives, from collective class struggle to vanguard art. Soon after the Nazis’ official rise to power, the theorist Georg Lukács argued that New Objectivity’s art and literature were “apologetic” and able to “easily merge with the Fascist legacy.” In the museum’s framing, Schad appears to have completed what was then only a concerned premonition.
In Schad’s case, the merger was not just social—his patrons were now Nazis—but formal and institutional as well. While he had an eye for “degenerate” lifestyles, and while some New Objectivity peers, like George Grosz, were featured in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937, Schad’s clean, quasi-Romantic manner appeased the party enough for two of his pictures to appear in the concurrent “Great German Art” show. A large landscape, Hochwald (1936), also in the museum’s first room, appeared in two other Nazi-sponsored exhibitions. Sure enough, in 1933, as some of his peers and sitters began to flee, Schad officially joined the Nazi Party. Later, he claimed that he did so merely to satisfy his bourgeois father, and that he was kicked out of the party for “resistance” in 1942. But the museum counters with information on the professional benefits of his membership (money, supplies) and evidence of his compliance into 1943.
By prefacing its subsequent, quasi-chronological display as such, the museum suggests that visitors should consider Schad’s 60-plus-year output in relation to his activities during the Third Reich. But there are also markers of complexity or contradiction, and apparent historical, aesthetic, or ideological outliers: an Expressionist canvas from 1914, a photograph of Schad practicing yoga in 1950, a maximalist self-portrait (1967/68) exemplary of the artist’s late-period magic realism. Is one to understand this collection of disparate objects as part of a coherent project? Schad no doubt merged with Fascism’s social bases and artistic imperatives, but the merger was not necessarily as easy, or as total, as critics like Lukács perceived.
BORN IN MIESBACH, BAVARIA, in 1894, Schad grew up in Munich, with a father (a lawyer) and mother (from a wealthy, art-appreciating family) who stoked his creativity. In 1913 he enrolled at Munich’s art academy, but dropped out after two semesters, drawn more to Expressionists like Oskar Kokoschka than to his late-Impressionist teachers. Soon, he decamped to Switzerland to wait out World War I. In Zürich, Schad established contact with budding Dadaists and formed a productive friendship with the writer Walter Serner. The museum’s second room presents the art he created during this period: expressive woodcuts that culled inspiration from both nightlife and religion (some of which were published in Serner’s magazine, Sirius), as well as paintings like Marietta (1916), a Cubo-Futurist depiction of cabaret star Marie Kirndörfer.
In 1916 Schad relocated to Geneva, where, by his account, his “Dada days” began in earnest. Besides the Weimar-era portraits, his best-known works are the cameraless photographs (“Schadographs”) he created there, one of which hangs at the museum. He also continued to paint, including a series of Kokoschka-esque portraits of patients at a local psychiatric clinic. Like many modernists, Schad believed the mentally ill have unmediated access to meaning. Painters, he wrote in 1918, shared this ability to “apprehend the various mystical depths.”
Schad chased that belief for the rest of his life. He dropped Dada not long after he embraced it, arguing retrospectively that its “experiment of shock succeeded … but only on the formal level, because there was no spiritual-dynamic center.” After World War I, he returned to Munich briefly, taken with local bourgeois portraiture by artists like Franz von Lenbach. A more decisive move came in 1920, when he started a five-year on-and-off stint in Rome and Naples. Schad said he “found the way” to himself in Italy, possessed, like the Romantics before him, of what he saw as its primordial character. “Ancient art is often more contemporary than the art of our times,” he wrote in a catalogue for a 1927 exhibition that included works made during his sojourn. As he would in Berlin, Schad trained his gaze on a range of local Italian subjects, some on the street, others in more exclusive settings. In 1925, he produced a pensive official portrait of Pope Pius XI, of which the museum has an original reproduction. (Copies circulated widely thanks to a publishing connection of Schad’s father.)
Schad also painted the man who facilitated his papal commission, Father Aquilin Reichert. The portrait, featured in the museum, testifies to Schad’s technical acumen, with the smooth surface and sensitive modeling that would mark his work of the late 1920s. He achieves a familiar sense of isolation, too, via Reichert’s cool, penetrating stare and a church background with columns that, however realistic, stagger and multiply as if viewed through a kaleidoscope. The wall text identifies this painting as Schad’s “First Objectivity,” indicating not only its formal affinities with his New Objectivity canvases of the ensuing years but also the style’s roots in Catholic portraiture. There, one guesses, Schad found the “spiritual-dynamic center” that Dada lacked.
SCHAD WAS “NOT A CONSPICUOUS artist during the Nazi era,” art historian Bettina Kess wrote in a 2019 article in the journal RIHA that was the first to address the artist’s Nazi affiliations in detail. There is, if not ambiguity, some complexity to his situation, she noted. Although he was a working painter during the Third Reich—with supplemental income from a job as a brewery manager—Schad wasn’t a party favorite. He received just one official commission, had no solo exhibitions, and didn’t produce propaganda (although his soft, idealized portraits of women graced numerous magazine covers). At the same time, to Kess, Schad “adapted his style and choice of motifs to the new [Nazi-era] political and social conditions.”
By 1943 he was thus well situated to reproduce Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna. The Renaissance painter’s reputation had grown since his rediscovery in the 19th century. When his Isenheim Altarpiece moved during World War I from Alsace to Munich for alleged safekeeping, it became a national icon. While New Objectivity artists like George Grosz and Karl Hubbuch valued Grünewald’s rough handling and distended figuration, traditionalists latched onto what felt like his distinctly German formation (as opposed to Dürer’s Italian inflections). Delayed by the war, Schad finished his copy in 1947; faithful to the original in its weirdness, it hangs in Aschaffenburg’s Stiftskirche, a few minutes’ walk from the Schad Museum.
Unique in Schad’s oeuvre, the reproduction could be said to cap the “adaptation” that Kess observes. But, walking through the museum, one can trace the change back to before the official institution of Nazism. Kind im Gras (1930), for example, features a beguiling doll-like infant—the daughter of dealer Wolfgang Gurlitt—clutching a flower. (Flowers were a throughline for Schad, as were children, whom he saw as uncorrupted by civilization.) The work appeared in the Nazi exhibition “For the German Spirit” three years after its production; another pre-Nazi portrait may have sold to Joseph Goebbels in 1935. Yet the acceptance of Schad’s work of the 1930s in certain Nazi contexts can be misleading. If Schad’s art of those years appeased Fascist officials, so did prominent paintings from the late 1920s, like a portrait of the modernist composer Josef Matthias Hauer and the gruesome Operation, which featured in a Nazi exhibition titled “In Praise of Work.”
Schad ultimately did slow his painting output in the mid-1930s, resuming productivity around 1942, when he painted his young bride-to-be, Bettina, in a sheer shirt in front of what became a typical mountain backdrop. In the interim, Schad took photos that he tried and failed to sell to publications. More than art, he occupied himself during these years with studies in Eastern and esoteric practices. He became a vegetarian, took up yoga, and built a library of mystical and occult texts by writers such as Meister Eckhart, Helena Blavatsky, and Aleister Crowley. Later, when questioned by Allied forces for denazification, he pointed to his books—“whose possession was dangerous,” he said—to prove his ideological independence, claiming that he was “completely uninterested in politics.”
Although the Nazis eventually outlawed occult texts, their relationship to esotericism was complicated. As the museum notes, Schad shared his interests with a mass outgrowth of Germany’s 19th-century Lebensreform movement, aspects of which attracted affiliates of Expressionism, Dada, the Bauhaus, and the Nazis who expressed enmity to industrial modernity through a blend of artistic, social, and religious ideas. In the museum’s narrative, Schad’s apparent stylistic and ideological disparities over time thus start to cohere, to become continuous. If this continuity threatens to cast Schad’s trajectory and that of esoteric thought in Germany as overly linear, however, the museum does admit the difficulty of drawing such a line at times. For example, one finds Schad’s well-known 1929 drawing of two boys kissing paired with information on the Wandervögel, the back-to-nature youth groups which were dissolved but also in some respects co-opted by the Nazis in 1933. Offered as if in recognition of the Nazis’ impending masculine embattlements, the drawing implies, in turn, Schad’s thoroughgoing attraction to the dynamic social experience that collective belief and practice can foster, for good or ill.
THE CATALOGUE FOR “In Praise of Work” emphasized how “German artists… regardless of their artistic individuality,” should flatten in service of the Führer and of their “ethnic community.” Schad prided himself, of course, on individualism. After the war, despite a West German vogue for abstract painting, he went his own way as an artist, resuscitating his late-1920s approach. To describe his new portraits, Schad used a term that the critic Franz Roh offered in 1925 as an alternative to New Objectivity, “magic realism,” taking both words seriously. A painting of 1954, of the writer and Aschaffenburger Clemens Brentano, introduces a dissonant cascade of spectral figures and religious or mythological symbols (in this, it echoes the Grünewald). Others hew closer to the Weimar portraits, like that of the art dealer Carl Laszlo (1974). His three arms and the winged deity behind him reflect his and Schad’s shared orientalist (or, by then, “New Age”) interests; the “magic” and “realist” elements appear almost collaged together, raising a question of their compatibility.
Uneven and rarely seen, these late portraits look remarkably like those from 30 or 40 years before; like West Germany itself, Schad looked to recapture a feeling of Weimar’s bourgeois stability. He couldn’t, not least because the “stability” had been flimsy in the first place. In a well-known early canvas, from 1927, Schad painted Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt, a queer nobleman who, after World War I, lost the benefits of his title. Based in Vienna, the Count stands in a facsimile of Paris, flanked by two sex workers. His mien broadcasts both bemusement and strain, a reckoning with how the social conditions that upheld his earlier existence had changed. One understands, here, why the art historian Alois Riegl claimed two decades prior that painted faces could best expose a person’s “inner, spiritual impulses.”
Schad’s late paintings, by contrast, might be said to privilege outer spiritual impulses. Some still “throb,” in Roh’s parlance, and even shock, like the primitivist Lilith (1976) or Im Irisgarten (1968/69), which depicts a nude pubescent girl, her body reflected across a hall of mirrors. But, however striking the compositions, their “experience of shock,” as Schad might have said, remains on the surface. The pictures make explicit what had become Schad’s uncomplicated interest in transgression, a quality that, in the Count, had been cut through with intrigue and insecurity: a sense that the artist was both leering and awed, discomfited and delighted. As Schad aged, these qualities—intrigue and insecurity—hardened within him and his work, a bulwark against the crumbling material and ideological structures that sustained his earlier art. The “magic” he sought had faded, leaked from the rubble.