Christian Schad, Self-Portrait

Christian Schad, Self-Portrait, 1927, oil on wood, 29 x 24-3/8″ / 76 x 62 cm (Tate Modern, London) 

Unusually, two figures make up this self-portrait, which is all sexuality but no passion.


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] We’re in the Tate Modern, and we’re looking at Christian Schad’s “Self-Portrait.” It’s a painting from 1927. It’s a tough painting.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] It is. It shows two figures who really take up the entire space of the canvas, with the male figure in front looking very menacing, and a passive, very sexual female nude behind him.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] He’s the artist, looking almost directly at us. There is a very hard edge. The figures are on a bed together and yet they feel worlds apart.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] She has none of the erotic sensuality that one normally associates with a female nude. She’s very sexual, but she looks very modern. She’s not an idealized Venus. She’s got makeup on. She’s got a 1920s hairdo, and a ribbon around her wrist, and so she very much looks of the city, but then she’s got this terrible scar on her face.

[0:59] The way that the male figure in front, who looks directly at us — [and] as you said, and looks kind of menacing — one wonders what kind of harm he’s inflicted on this female figure behind him.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] Or perhaps metaphorically, what kind of harm he inflicts through his painting, perhaps in his life more directly. Now let’s — just to place these figures, they’re both on a bed, very, very close to the foreground, so they’re really immediate to us, but then we see a very, very thin veil behind these figures and…

Dr. Harris: [1:28] Separating them from the city.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] Right, beyond that the city. We can just see the last traces of light fade away.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] He’s wearing a shirt that’s very much like a veil, it’s almost completely transparent.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] Yeah, that’s a pretty wild outfit for him to be wearing. Notice that the shirt continues down past the roll of his waist, down to his hips.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] It casts a greenish tonality on his flesh.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] For all the sexuality here, there’s really no passion.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] There’s no warmth at all. Something in this painting that speaks to a kind of ugliness and difficulty and harshness of sexuality, of the body, and a harshness of human relations.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] It’s interesting to put this then in historical context. Germany had been a fairly agrarian society for a long time. In the years that preceded this, in the several decades that preceded this, [it] had caught up to much of the West in terms of industrialization, in terms of the city becoming central to German life, and the sexuality and the freedom that comes with it.

Dr. Harris: [2:26] The sexual freedom of the city.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] That’s right, with the anonymity of the city. And so you have an artist that seems to be directly dealing with that new reality.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] As many German artists had before him. When we think about Kirchner’s street scenes…

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] Absolutely, but whereas Kirchner was dealing with a kind of abstraction, a kind of surrealism…

Dr. Harris: [2:44] A kind of distortion.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] …or a kind of Dadaist distortion, here you have a return to a focused, clarified, intense rendering, where you can’t even hide behind abstraction. It’s absolutely there.

Dr. Harris: [2:57] That’s exactly what these artists were looking for, the “Neue Sachlichkeit” artists. This new objectivity, new realism, rejecting the distortions used by Expressionist artists before them who used those kinds of distortions to represent emotional states, here saying, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to represent this cold reality.”

[3:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Christian Schad, Self-Portrait," in Smarthistory, November 23, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024,