Christian Schad - Biography and Legacy
German Painter and Photographer
Biography of Christian Schad
Christian Schad was born to an affluent family in Miesbach (Upper Bavaria), Germany, in 1894. The family moved to Munich shortly after he was born. His father Carl Schad was a prominent lawyer, while his mother's family owned several successful breweries in Bavaria. Artistic ability and ingenuity ran in Schad's family. His mother was related to the German Romantic painter Carl Philipp Fohr and his paternal grandfather was credited with bringing the bicycle to Germany. His parents encouraged his abilities in art and music from an early age, exposing him to art and culture on family trips to Italy and other regional art centers.
Early Training and Work
Schad's affluent upbringing made it possible for him to forego more traditional pursuits in favor of life as an artist. Spurred by his early exposure to the arts, he enrolled at the Munich Art Academy in 1913, but he soon became disenchanted with the academy's conservatism and left to open his own studio in Munich. In defiance of his academic training, he began producing woodcuts, several of which were included in the 1915 exhibition of the New Munich Secession and later included in the Expressionist journal Die Aktion. In the years leading up to World War I, he spent time in the Netherlands and had plans to move to England.
A pacifist, strongly opposed to war, Schad fled Germany with the outbreak of World War I to avoid being sent to the frontlines. With the help of his family's connections and a sympathetic doctor, he faked a heart condition and left Germany in 1915 for a Swiss sanatorium. Other German painters of his generation - Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Rudolf Schlichter - served in the war and were forever changed by their experience. Seeking refuge from the war, Schad went to Zurich, where he found, in his words, "a peaceful island in an ocean of arrogant nationalism and ugly stupidity." In Zurich he met a prominent group of exiled artists - Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and Emmy Hennings - who together formed the fledgling Zurich Dada group. On arrival, he immediately befriended Walter Serner, a writer and doctor of law who was forced to flee Berlin after forging a medical certificate for Expressionist Franz Jung. He also mingled during these years with artists, writers, and politicians at Café Landolt, including Ukranian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, Flemish artist Frans Masereel, and French socialist and anti-war activist Henri Guilbeaux.
Although he was initially skeptical of the group and their various activities, Schad was converted to Dada after his move to Geneva in 1916. Forming a Dada outpost in the French-speaking city, he and Serner participated actively in Dada events, which, in Geneva, included provocative actions and performances by a particularly nihilistic Serner. On one evening, at an exhibition of Schad's work at a Geneva gallery, Serner gave such a long-winded and infuriating speech that the audience tore Schad's work from the walls and threw it to the ground. His increased involvement with the Dada group in the late 1910s brought him into communication with fellow Dadaists Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara in Paris. Around this time, he collaborated with Serner on the publication of Sirius, a literature review, for which he produced a series of monochromatic Expressionist woodcuts in black ink.
Schad was always something of an outlier in the insular Dada group. Despite his marginal position, he made several important contributions to the Dada movement: he produced a series of abstract sculptural reliefs (in wood), innovated use of the photogram (cameraless photography), and made posters for the First Dadaist World Congress in 1919. His use of the photogram technique was particularly influential for other avant-garde artists. With the end of the war, Schad left Zurich in 1920 and returned to Munich, ending his brief affiliation with Zurich Dada.
In the years between 1920 and 1925, Schad spent much of his time in Italy. He traveled to Rome, where he met Italian Futurist painter Enrico Prampolini, and attended the salons of Futurist photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia. With Serner, the two friends would live for a time in Naples, where Schad began to paint people and scenes with a realism not seen in his previous work. During these years he traveled to Munich, reconnecting with his friend and fellow artist Georg Schrimpf, who had also begun working in a realist style that drew heavily on Italian painting. In 1923, back in Italy, he married Marcella Arcangeli, the daughter of a professor in Rome. They had a son the following year. Together they traveled to Paris and Munich but eventually returned to Italy, settling in Naples. While in Italy, he received a commission to paint Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Schad moved his family to Vienna in 1926, where he became a society painter for bohemians, the newly rich, and the disaffected aristocrats from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had lost their fortunes after the war. After two years, he divorced his wife, leaving his family in Vienna, and moved to Berlin in 1928 with the help of Serner. He found his stride in the city and commenced his most productive artistic period. Although his work is now associated with New Objectivity painting, he was not included in the famous 1925 Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in Mannheim, nor was he interested in the social critique or political satire that characterized the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz. He was, however, interested in painting Berlin's various "types," much like Dix and photographer August Sander. His work, which looked to Italian painting for inspiration, was more closely aligned with Magic Realism and its tendency toward classicism.
Not long after his arrival in Berlin, he met Swedish journalist and naturalist Felix Bryk. With Bryck, he attended late-night bars, circuses, medical procedures, and Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexology. Always fascinated by a broad cross section of society, these late-night outings provided Schad with a vast array of characters that he would incorporate into his paintings and drawings in the late 1920s - lesbians, transvestites, prostitutes, bankrupt aristocrats, artists, and writers.
Despite producing some of his best-known work in Berlin, he found little commercial or financial success during his time there. By the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Schad became increasingly interested in Far Eastern philosophy, particularly Taoism and Zen Buddhism, taking Chinese language and calligraphy classes at the University of Berlin. He also began to have monetary problems and found himself isolated in the years leading up to rise of the National Socialists in 1933. Supported for much of his life by his father, Schad never had to rely on the sale of his paintings, but after the market crash of 1929, he was forced to earn a living. To support himself, he worked for a Bavarian brewery and took commissions for painted portraits.
His early Dada work brought him unexpected success in 1936, when he was included in Alfred H. Barr's New York exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the fact that many of his Dada and Expressionist colleagues were deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis and numerous of his Berlin paintings demonstrated a decided preference for the erotic, Schad nonetheless submitted a group of paintings to the Great Exhibition of German Art. Mounted by the Nazis to counter the Degenerate Art exhibition, the Great Exhibition of German Art opened in Munich in 1937. He showed two paintings at the exhibition, a portrait of a woman and a Paris cityscape. With this exhibition, Schad largely withdrew from the Berlin art world. Following the bombing of his studio in 1943, Schad moved to Aschaffenburg, in Northwest Bavaria. Together with girlfriend, Bettina Mittelstädt, he was able to save many of the paintings from his bombed studio. The two were married later that year. In Aschaffenburg, he was commissioned by the city to produce a copy of Matthias Grünewald's Stuppach Madonna (1518), which provided much-needed income and allowed him to survive the final years of the war.
In 1962, Schad moved to the Bavarian city of Keilheim. In the 1950s, he had begun a new series of realist paintings that featured his wife Bettina Schad, many of which were laden with allegory and symbolism. In the 1960s, Schad returned to cameraless photography, producing a new series of "Schadographs" at the behest of famed photography historian Helmut Gernsheim. In the final decades of his life, Schad participated in numerous exhibitions on Dada and New Objectivity, as well as a large-scale retrospective in Milan in 1977. Christian Schad died in Stuttgart, Germany, at the age of 88.
The Legacy of Christian Schad
Despite his early appearance in the exhibition Fantastic Art: Dada, Surrealism (1936), Schad is not well known as a painter or as a photographer. His most important work, first with Zurich Dada and later in New Objectivity painting, was produced during a brief period between 1918 and 1929. A renewed interest in interwar photography, the Dada movement, and the photogram technique has shed new light on his importance to these histories.
Contemporary interest in alternative photographic processes has also initiated a resurgence in the photogram technique, which has led such artists as Thomas Ruff, Adam Fuss, and Marco Breuer to look anew at cameraless photography. In the immediate post-war period, his New Objectivity painting was largely ignored due to its connections to Nazi-approved realist painting. In the last several decades, however, his work has benefited from the scholarly revival of New Objectivity painting, which brought his cool objective realism of 1920s Berlin and Vienna to new audiences. In 2019, a museum dedicated to his work will open in Aschaffenburg, a town just Southeast of Frankfurt, where Schad eventually settled, which will certainly bring him a wider audience.