Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove 1929 is a large portrait-orientated oil painting of two funfair performers made by the German artist Christian Schad. Set against a neutral background of purples, blues and greys, the painting features a white man (Agosta) on a decorative high-backed chair that is reminiscent of a throne. He is naked aside from a black and white robe that is swathed around his lower half, and he turns slightly to his right in an upright position that emphasises his unusually prominent ribcage. The man has a confident, almost arrogant expression, and stares down towards the viewer. Positioned in front of him at his feet is a black woman (Rasha) visible from the chest upwards, who wears a red and white halter-neck top. She is shown frontally and gazes impassively at the viewer. The painting is signed and dated by the artist in the bottom right corner.
This work was made in 1929 in Berlin, where Schad lived from 1927 to 1943. It is executed on a plain-weave linen canvas with the paint applied consistently all over. Schad met the subjects of the painting at a funfair in north Berlin, where they appeared together using the bird-related names referenced in the work’s title. As part of their performance, Agosta displayed his upside-down ribcage – a deformity with which he was born – while Rasha, who was from Madagascar, appeared with a large snake wrapped around her (see Joachimides, Rosenthal and Schmied 1985, p.39). Schad made two preparatory drawings of each sitter in charcoal, and in a 1977 text he claimed that the models were ‘simple, obliging and, like all performers, dependable and punctual. They told me much about their lives that was much more interesting than what I would have been told at a five o’clock tea’ (quoted in Rewald 2006, p.156).
Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove can be closely related to the development of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a style of precise realist painting that first emerged in Germany in the early 1920s in response to more abstract forms such as cubism. As the art historian Wieland Schmied noted in 1985, Schad painted the subjects in this work ‘in a sober manner as objects devoid of any romanticism, objects of our curiosity, our desire or our repulsion’ (Joachimides, Rosenthal and Schmied 1985, p.39). Discussing Schad’s tendency to portray unconventional subjects in an objective and uncompromising fashion, the art historian Matthias Eberle has suggested that the artist was ‘ennobling them with his style’ (Matthias Eberle, ‘Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany: A Brief History’, in Rewald 2006, p.28).
Born in Bavaria in 1894, Schad trained briefly at the Art Academy in Munich in 1913, where he made expressionist woodcuts. He moved to Switzerland in 1915, living first in Zurich and then from 1916 to 1920 in Geneva, where he became part of the emerging Dada movement. In 1918 he began a series of ‘Schadographs’, which consist of photographic images produced not with a camera but by placing objects on photosensitive paper that is exposed to sunlight (see, for example, Schadograph 1918, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Between 1920 and 1925 Schad lived in Italy, where his practice was especially influenced by Renaissance artists such as Raphael (1483–1520), before moving to Vienna in 1925, where his work included Self-Portrait 1927 (Tate L01710). Between 1942 and 1947 Schad was commissioned by authorities in the Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, where he moved in 1943, to complete a full-scale replica of Matthias Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna 1514–19. His paintings of the 1950s engaged with forms of magical realism, while in the 1960s he returned to making ‘Schadographs’.
Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Wieland Schmied, German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905–1985, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1985, pp.39, 498, reproduced no.173.
Sabine Rewald, Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2006, pp.28, 154–6, reproduced p.155.
Christian Schad: Retrospectief, exhibition catalogue, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague 2009, p.132, reproduced p.133.