Beyond the Canvas
Die Neue Sachlichkeit: Christian Schad's "Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove"
Art history is punctuated by a constant juxtaposition of departure from and alignment to tradition. At the same time as some artists are disrupting and trying to innovate, others are formally reconnecting with classical tradition in its broadest sense. Years ago, I studied this phenomenon during the first half of the XX century Europe, the so-called persistence of realism (thank you Christine if you are reading).
German Christian Schad (1894-1932) is one of the most prominent members of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a movement that emerged in the 1920s as a response to the disruptive excesses of abstract expressionism. He mostly produced portraits, his style was elegant and precise but never failed to convey unsettling atmospheres. His unsmiling sitters ooze a sense of enigma and underlying complex psychology.
In this picture symmetry and harmony are in sharp contrast with the ambiguous subject matter. Agosta and Rasha are funfair performers, they are not the typical portrait subjects. Schad goes his own way and chooses to celebrate the socially outcast. Agosta, who probably attracted and repelled the public for his physical deformity, is painted like a Bellini Madonna, solemnly enthroned and looking almost regal. He averts his gaze and refuses to engage with the viewer, thus taking control of the relationship. Stop staring at me, he is saying.
Rasha, who is said to have been a snake dancer from Madagascar, is looking straight at us, fearless and proud. But she also looks vulnerable, possibly humiliated by having to wear a stereotypical African dress so we can be entertained. To me, she is the visual representation of the lure of the exotic that has its roots in colonialism and its worldview.
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Christian Schad (1894 -1982)
Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove, 1929
Tate Modern, London