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Number 13: Spring 2018

The Woman in the Portrait

Juliet Jacques

Good evening ladies, gentlemen and everyone else, and welcome to the Tate Modern. The image you see is Self-Portrait with Model by German artist Christian Schad, known as ‘the painter with the scalpel’ for the cutting, forensic nature of his work, and it is on loan from a private collector. The son of a wealthy Bavarian lawyer, Schad was born in 1894 and fled to Switzerland in 1915 to avoid military service. There, he became involved with the Dadaists, attending their legendary Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, before moving to Italy and adopting the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style that replaced Expressionism as Germany’s dominant Modernist form in the mid-1920s. 

Painted in 1927, the Self-Portrait is Schad’s most famous work. It is noted for his suspicion and hostility, and the disconnection between him and his ‘model’, but her identity has long been a mystery. It is not his then-wife, Marcella Arcangeli, an Italian medical professor’s daughter who he married in 1923. Schad claimed that he saw her in a stationery shop in Vienna, where he lived from 1925 to 1927, but the remarkable find of two diaries from 1926 and 1927, by a ‘transvestite’ known only as 107 

Heike, a hostess in Berlin’s El Dorado nightclub who worked as a maid at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Science, has radically changed perceptions of Schad’s work. 11 They were recovered from an attic in Nice, near Hirschfeld’s home after his exile from Germany. Along with Schad’s letters to Dadaist friends, recently discovered by art scholars, they explain how Heike came to be the woman in the portrait, and provide a fascinating insight into gender-variant life in the Weimar Republic. 

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On Friday 4 February 1927, Heike went to the El Dorado, a gay club in Berlin which had just moved to Schöneberg, opposite the Scala Variety Theatre. The following day, she wrote: 

At the El Dorado last night, with Dora and the girls.22 I got my hair done like Asta Nielsen in Joyless Street, and I wore my long black dress with the beads that Marie got for my birthday. Conrad [Veidt] was there, getting drunk with Marlene [Dietrich] before her act. 

I went on stage and introduced Marlene. A man at the front kept staring at me. I saw him go to the bar and buy some chips for a dance. As I stepped down, he grabbed my hands, told me he’d just moved to Berlin, took me to the bar and bought a bottle of absinthe. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen”, he told me. “Listen,” I said, “I’m the third sex.” 

“That might be Dr Hirschfeld’s line,” he yelled, “but you transcend sex!” He invited me to his studio in Vienna to model for him. I said I wanted to be in the movies but Conrad told me it could never happen. “Ignore that two-bit somnambulist! Once they see my portrait, no director could resist you! As far as the pictures are concerned – you are a woman!” 

We danced. He kept staring into my eyes, smiling. I tried to kiss him. 

“I’m married,” he said. He gave me a card with his address, told me to write to him and then left. Dora asked what happened. “Nothing”, I said. 

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  1. Hirschfeld popularised the term in his ground-breaking book The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress (1910). Despite his title, ‘transvestite’ did not exclusively refer to people who found sexual fulfilment in wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, being closer to the modern ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’. 

  2. Dora Richter, who was castrated in 1922 by Dr Erwin Gohrbandt before undergoing the first ever sex reassignment surgery in 1931. She tried to remove her male genitalia aged six; as an adult, she worked as a waiter in the summer and lived as a woman off-season, for which she was repeatedly arrested and sent to a men’s prison. Hirschfeld got permission for her to wear women’s clothes and employed her at the Institute as a domestic servant and demonstration patient. ‘The girls’ most likely refers to the other maids at the Institute.