From the mid to the late 1920s, the German painter Christian Schad produced a group of paintings like little else in modern art. Possessing the translucent clarity of Renaissance portraits, they project a nighttown vision of Mitteleuropa worldlings, bathed in a mood of obsessive eroticism. The oeuvre of a great many artists contains an X portfolio, so to speak, of erotic images. But I can think of no painter of Schad’s stature whose work, in the few years in which he touched greatness, was so totally given over to erotomania that everything associated with the personages he portrays–a flower, an accessory, a human companion–seems to signal preferences in some exotic code of sexual specialization.

Some ten years earlier, as a member of the Dada movement, Schad attracted a certain notice through a body of work that could not contrast more vividly with the extraordinary paintings of the 1920s. It consisted of small experimental photograms in which bits of fabric and scraps of paper were arranged in abstract compositions on photosensitive paper that was then exposed to light. Through one of the vagaries of art history, the Museum of Modern Art acquired several of the “Schadographs,” as Schad’s photograms were dubbed by the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, and the artist’s reputation has rested almost entirely on these early avant-garde efforts. The paintings, meanwhile, have until now remained almost totally unknown. This gives a particular excitement to the exhibition “Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit,” at the Neue Galerie in New York City, where they are being shown for the first time in America.

Neue Sachlichkeit means “new objectivity,” and it designates an art movement that took place mainly in Germany and Italy in the mid-1920s. The term entered the discourse of art writing in 1925, in connection with a famous exhibition organized in Mannheim, Germany, by Gustav Hartlaub, a curator of some note. The title was originally to have been “Post Expressionism.” Sachlichkeit, or objectivity, contrasts fairly exactly with “subjectivity,” which everyone would have associated with Expressionism, an art of inner feeling. German Expressionism was one of the great Modernist movements, and Schad himself belonged to it before he converted to Dada. The term “objectivity” suggests that the artists involved were bent on representing things as they really appear, but there is more–and less–to the movement than that. Schad’s paintings, for example, seem to be objective transcriptions of actual persons in real settings–bedrooms and cafes. They have an almost clinically photographic truth, which can easily mislead us into thinking that that is all they are.

In fact, the heavy spice of sexual obsession in Schad’s paintings is almost like the aura of religious devotion that Renaissance painters used to transform their models into saints and martyrs, rather than an atmosphere that he actually encountered in the cabaret precincts of Berlin and Vienna. The people he portrayed, often from memory, were vehicles for metaphoric transformation. “My pictures are never illustrative,” he wrote in a caption for his 1927 masterpiece, Self-Portrait With Model. “If anything, they are symbolic.” That symbolism gives these works the uncanniness of things dreamt. There are three mysteries connected with these extraordinary works: how anyone who made the photograms could have made them; why, after the brief period in which he achieved greatness in the late 1920s, Schad did nothing of significance for the remainder of his long life; and, finally and most important, the mystery of these amazing pictures themselves. To explain that, we need to relate them somewhat to the Schadographs, which belong to an earlier moment of Schad’s life.

As a young man, Schad left Germany for Switzerland in 1915, ostensibly for reasons of health, but mainly in order not to be called up as part of Germany’s war effort. There he fell in with the Zurich Dadaists. Little of his art from the Dada years survives, apart from the Schadographs, some woodcut prints and a few posters, but Dada art was in its nature fairly ephemeral and deliberately minor, which has in part to do with the movement’s refusal to make aesthetically ingratiating art. Dada’s aim was indeed the suppression of beauty, since beauty was among the values venerated by the class responsible for the so-called Great War. Why should we make beauty for a society capable of that? The repudiation of beauty was thus a form of moral protest, not unlike the decision by the women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to politicize sex by withholding it until their men stopped making war. So while the cannons pounded and millions of young men died elsewhere in Europe, Dada indulged in willful buffoonery. By turning themselves into artist-clowns, they rejected the role of artist-heroes, refusing to be complicit in the value scheme of the warmakers. I regard this as having had the incidental consequence of a major philosophical contribution–perhaps the main philosophical contribution made by art in the twentieth century. Dada demonstrated that something can be art without being beautiful, a notion that would at the turn of the century have been considered philosophically incoherent. And it had the consequence of politicizing beauty, which made Dada the forerunner of the anti-aesthetic tendency of so much of contemporary art, with its implied edge of political critique. The Schadographs are almost paradigms of anti-aestheticism, whatever further interest they may have for the history of photography or, for the matter, of abstraction.

The contempt that Zurich Dada displayed toward the society that had produced the wholesale slaughter of the Great War continued after the Armistice, as members of the movement sought to involve themselves in a form of art that might help effect political change. Dada also challenged the tendency of German culture to elevate the artist–The Artist–to the status of a quasi-divine hero, and perhaps it was this cultural disposition that explains why Dada was essentially a German phenomenon, even though not all its members were German nationals. Posters in the First International Dada Exhibition in Berlin (1920) proclaim the death of art, but what they meant was that art as it had been exalted by German culture was dead.

The most distinctive art form of Berlin Dada was photomontage, which became in their hands a vehicle of social and political critique well into the Nazi era. But initially, I think, photomontage was a corollary to Dada’s anti-aestheticism. Its critical subtext was that art can be made with scissors and paste, using newspaper and magazine boilerplate as its material. Its spirit could not have been more different from the earlier collage work of Picasso and Braque in Paris. It was sarcastic rather than witty. Berlin Dada made art out of images that had no redeeming aesthetic value–just what its society deserved.

Schad, by contrast, underwent a certain crise de conscience when he came down, so to speak, from the magic mountain of the Dadaist interlude in Switzerland, and encountered the reality of the human suffering left in the war’s wake. This was translated into a change in style: The jokiness of Dada seemed no longer a suitable option. Even though Dada’s vision was never less than moralistic, its anti-aestheticism appears to have struck Schad as having outlived its occasion. He was not part of Berlin Dada. Like several of its members, he found his way to a certain kind of realism, but in a spirit entirely his own. And he pursued beauty as well, almost as if, since banishing beauty was a way of hurting the society that made the war, creating beauty was a way of healing it.

One reason for realism was as old as Shakespeare’s Hamlet: to use art as a mirror “to show…the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” and in which society would see its moral face reflected. In order for that to happen, viewers must not merely recognize what they see, but see themselves reflected in it. And for some painters, this was to be the role for art in the disarray of postwar Germany.

Consider the painter George Grosz. Grosz participated in the International Dada Exhibition in Berlin in 1920, but felt the need to do something more than express his overall disgust with Germany by way of pranks. He wanted Germans to feel disgust with themselves, and so he set out to show them to themselves in an exaggerated mirror, as a means to their moral self-transformation. Grosz explicitly invoked Hamlet’s metaphor: The artist, he said, “holds up a mirror to his contemporaries’ mugs. I drew and painted out of a spirit of contradiction, trying in my works to convince the world that it was ugly, sick, and mendacious.” His work really did show his sick society to itself. There is little question that our picture of Weimar society is the one that Grosz has left us: porcine men, rolls of neck fat beneath their tight bowlers, flouncy whores in skimpy dresses hanging on their arms, walking past emaciated veterans on crutches begging for Groschen.

It has evidently not been difficult for art scholars to see Schad’s work in terms of Grosz’s model. The article on him in Grove’s Dictionary of Art reads as follows: “Unlike…Grosz, Schad did not employ caricature. Instead he criticized the structures of society by coolly and uncompromisingly depicting every detail of his subjects and their surroundings and by revealing the distance and emptiness between them.” The article goes on to interpret various paintings by Schad along these lines, as depictions of a decadent and dissolute society. The portrait of the Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt, for example, is described this way: “Two prostitutes in transparent dresses vie for the count’s attention, while he turns his back to them and stares rigidly out of the picture.” Or again, “The exposing, ugly portrait of Countess Triglion is another critical comment on the moral decay behind the bourgeois façade.”

But did Schad in fact depict the details of the world of his subjects? Did women in fact wear transparent gowns as they are shown in the painting of Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt? That is to suppose that the New Objectivity was objective in a literal photographic sense. Schad wrote: “Count St. Genois was the sort of person who can only live in a city, with all its freedoms and social constraints. So I painted him in a dinner jacket against the skyline of Montmartre, between an older, and rather masculine woman and a well-known transvestite from the Eldorado in Berlin–the latter are both wearing see-through dresses.” The dinner jacket is symbolic rather than illustrative, to use his distinction, as are the skyline and the dresses. It is as if he painted the Count in a world that suited his fantasy, like a gift from the artist. But surely the see-through gowns and Montmartre itself were the stuff through which Schad gave objective embodiment to dreams. The painting is not a condemnation of society, except perhaps of the way society falls short of our fantasies. Schad’s realism had nothing in common with George Grosz’s, which really was polemical in spirit. It was hardly a mirror at all, unless a magic mirror, in which we don’t see ourselves as we are but as we wish in our secret heart to be. The paintings are a form of wish-fulfillment, as Freud tells us that our dreams are.

Let’s look at Schad’s great 1927 Self-Portrait With Model. An oil painting on wooden panel, this picture has the inner light of a Flemish masterpiece from the time of Jan van Eyck. Nothing about the picture, other than its title, tells us that it is of an artist and a model: It could, for all the internal evidence one might cite, be a pair of lovers or, for that matter, a prostitute and a client. There are no attributes of the artist’s studio–no easel or palette–except the large window and a single enlarged narcissus, which is there not as a decorative touch but as a symbolic emblem. The two figures are narcissists. They do not look at each other, but within. Their expressions evoke an extreme self-preoccupation. The most striking attribute in the painting is the artist’s transparent shirt, fastened with an ornamental tie with tassels. It would be what we call an intimate garment, if men wore intimate garments. It reveals his chest hair and the hair under his arm, but also his fleshy, almost feminine nipples. Schad tells us he really painted himself in a see-through shirt in order to show his naked body without showing himself naked. It makes for a more interesting picture. But it is unclear that it was a garment he actually possessed: It is “a shirt of the kind woven in ancient times on the Island of Kos.”

Painting a transparent garment like that is an act of virtuosity, almost an advertisement for his virtuosity as an artist. But it is not the picture’s only boast. The woman’s face is marked with a scar–a sfregio, Schad tells us, having learned the word in Naples, where he lived after the war, and where he married an Italian woman. A sfregio “was always inflicted by a jealous husband or lover, and displayed with great pride by a woman as a visible sign of the passion she inspired.” So like the shirt, the scar is a boast. The narcissus is thus symbolic of how each of the lovers love themselves. They are proud of their beauty, and of their sexual power. Schad has neatly lettered his signature on the crumpled bed-sheet. The cityscape silhouetted through the curtain represents “a vague longing for Paris,” the city of erotic fulfillment. The model’s hand, according to his caption, belonged to a woman who ran a shooting gallery at an amusement park in Vienna. The painting is an assemblage of disparate realities fused into a symbolic whole. It was not posed for and painted from life.

So what does objectivity mean in Schad’s case? I again turn to Shakespeare for guidance. In characterizing the imagination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus describes its power as, among other things, giving “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Schad paints, as if it were an objective reality, a sexualized fantasy that is symbolically equivalent to that reality. He showed himself and the “model” as narcissists, in order to bring out what one might call a truth of character. This is the way it is with us, he is saying; there is narcissism in each of us. We only have eyes for ourselves. For a moment we escaped from our narcissism in the act of love–but this is the moment après. Now we wish we were somewhere else–in Paris, for example.

The two girls, in the most explicitly erotic of the paintings in the show, are each pleasuring themselves rather than each other. One is nude, the other wears a lacy slip with one strap down, revealing a breast. Neither is an object for the other’s eyes. What could they be thinking about? What is the content of their respective fantasies? Whatever it is, what more vivid way can we express the truth that we all live in our heads than by autoerotic performances in one another’s company? How better to express our apartness? That is the objective truth about human beings. The Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt stands with his hands in the pockets of his tuxedo. He is interested neither in the man who looks like a woman nor the woman who looks like a man, each of whom eyes the other, wishing he/she had something the other one has. The transparency of the garments means that we can see through to this truth.

Schad’s distinction between illustrative and symbolic is nowhere better displayed than in two portraits he did of his girlfriend, Maika. Maika looks more erotic when we see her dressed than undressed, and on an imagined rooftop with the longed-for Montmartre behind her than in a real hotel room in Paris. The beautiful half-length nude, by contrast with the model in the self-portrait, was actually painted in Paris, in a hot hotel room on the Boulevard Raspail, and really is “illustrative”–that is how this lovely girl looked, with her skin “like mother-of-pearl.” But the painting of Maika on the roof is “symbolic.” Schad has inscribed his signature on the skin of her left arm, which is one of the few art-historical references I have discerned in Schad’s work. Raphael painted his signature on a band his girlfriend, known as La Fornarina, wears on that same arm. La Fornarina points to Raphael’s name with a certain pride–he is the one who did the painting that shows her beauty, and he is the one to whom she belongs in life. Maika does not perform this gesture. She is her own woman. But the two flowers, the one that she wears on her bosom, and one that sticks out on her other side, could hardly be more explicitly sexual. And the landscape behind her is Montmartre, not visible from the Boulevard Raspail. Even if she and Schad are in Paris, it is the Paris of our dreams that matters, not the real city. One can be in Paris and still long to be in Paris.

At this point I cannot resist citing the scholar in Grove, who possesses whatever eye it is that corresponds to a tin ear in music. She is describing what Schad tells us is the skyline in Montmartre in the portrait of Count St. Genois: “Through the window of the almost airless space one can see the grey houses of a working-class district: the contrast between the group and the background hints at the class divisions and inequalities in society.” No: The contrast is between things as they are and things as they are imagined. Consider the woman in Lotte. It is “a portrait of the little milliner in the hat shop on the ground floor of the building that also contained the Pension Schlesinger, where I lived until I found a studio.” He has imagined her as a demimondaine, wearing a blouse that came from the same imaginary boutique in which he found the green shirt in his self-portrait, and shown in complete self-possession seated in a cafe. The power of Schad’s paintings is the power of fantasy. We return to them compulsively. If they stop compelling us, something within us will have died. This leaves the mystery of why these paintings came to an end. What was it that died in Schad, since he went on living for nearly half a century more?