Work of a Nazi-banished Artist Is Back in Focus in Berlin

The career of promising painter Lotte Laserstein was cut short in 1933. Now her impressive work is getting its due

Avner Shapira
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A work by Lotte Laserstein on display in the 'Face to Face' exhibit.
A work by Lotte Laserstein on display in the 'Face to Face' exhibit. Credit: Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin /
Avner Shapira

BERLIN — In 1929, the German daily Berliner Tageblatt featured an art review that alerted readers: “Lotte Laserstein – a name we need to know.” The works of Laserstein, then 31 years old, were among those featured at the show under review. “The artist is one of the best among the young generation of painters. We will have cause to continue watching her shining ascent,” the newspaper promised.

In the next few years, Laserstein fulfilled some of those expectations. Her paintings were displayed at some 20 exhibitions in the German capital and she also received a number of awards – but due to her Jewish roots on her father’s side, her promising career was cut short with the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933.

After her work was barred from being shown, Laserstein fled to Sweden where she continued to paint, although she had difficulty replicating her budding career as an artist there. She died in Kalmar, Sweden in 1993. It was only in the latter years of her life that there was a revived interest in the work of the woman who had showed such promise in the waning years of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

“Face to Face,” now on at the Berlinsche Galerie museum of modern art through August 12, is an impressive, comprehensive exhibition of Laserstein’s paintings, curated by Annelie Lütgens. It brings the artist’s work back to the city where her career first blossomed – a city whose residents during that era feature in many of her paintings.

Acclaimed by the German media, “Face to Face” challenges viewers because it’s difficult to define Laserstein’s work as belonging to any discrete aesthetic category. The paintings on show are from the interwar period, when the artistic landscape in Germany was characterized by a multiplicity of avant-garde styles and trends. Laserstein excelled particularly in her warm and empathetic portraits, many of which featured modern, liberated women, but even when addressing innovative ideas in her paintings, she maintained a meticulous realistic style that was unusual in her day.

The prime example of this is her best-known painting, a large work from 1930 entitled “Evening Over Potsdam,” portraying five people deep in thought, sitting around with a table on a rooftop terrace, with a dog. In the background is the city skyline at twilight, overshadowed by dark clouds. Despite its realistic style – and the fact that it is somewhat reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” – the painting conveys an aura of unease and sorrow, which appears to be an accurate reflection of the era in which it was created, in the late 1920s, when economic and political crises shook Germany and ultimately led to the rise of Nazism.

“Evening Over Potsdam” and a good number of other paintings by Laserstein are proof that the artistic spectrum during the Weimar years was broader than generally thought, says German art historian Dr. Anna-Carola Krausse. About 15 years ago Krausse produced a groundbreaking, comprehensive study of Laserstein’s work and curated an exhibit of her work that marked the beginning of renewed interest in the artist, in Germany.

Laserstein combined the 19th-century academic style in which she was trained with contemporary subjects, says Krausee, thereby allowing us to expand the significance of the concept of artistic modernism. And although her work was undoubtedly modern, it also shows how figurative and not just abstract painting can capture the spirit of an era.

A painting by Lotte Laserstein. Credit: St?del Museum/ARTOTHEK / © VG

The Berlinsche Galerie show features about 60 of Laserstein’s works, most from the early years of her career in Berlin, although some are from her time in exile in Sweden. Also on display are the palette she used, as well as photographs and documents that offer insight into her life.

Discovering Rose

Lotte Laserstein was born in a small town in East Prussia in 1898; her mother who was a pianist and a father who was a pharmacist and died when she was very young. She moved with her mother and sister to Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk). As a girl, she studied painting with her aunt, who was also an artist.

The family moved to Berlin before World War I, and thereafter Laserstein studied philosophy and art history at the city’s Friedrich Wilhelm University. She was then accepted at the Berlin Art Academy, which had just opened its doors to women a few years beforehand. One of her primary instructors there was the German-Jewish painter Erich Wolfsfeld.

In 1925, by chance, Laserstein met a salesclerk named Traute Rose, whom she asked to be a model for her paintings. The two became close and Rose, who went on to be an actress and singer, features in many of the artist’s works. On more than one occasion, Rose appeared next to the artist in them, and was considered to be an equal partner in the composition – as opposed to the usual artist-model hierarchical perception.

As with other women whom Laserstein painted, Rose fit the image of the “new woman” of the Weimar period, a time when women were gaining increasing independence. Along with the right to vote, they were taking jobs that had been previously seen as men’s work and in some instances, even adopted a male or androgynous appearance.

During a tour of the current show, art historian Krausse draws particular attention to Laserstein’s portraits of women, including “Tennis Player” (1929), depicting a sport that was becoming popular at the time in Germany; “Girl Lying on Blue” (1931), which was selected as the exhibition poster; and “Self-Portrait with a Cat” (1928), in which the artist sought to demonstrate her professional capabilities, toying with the tradition of self-portraiture, according to Krausse.

The Lotte Laserstein exhibition in Berlin. Credit: Harry Schnitger

In the painting the cat represents femininity and the artist is dressed like a man and has a man’s haircut. The viewer will note that the canvas near her in the painting is blank: It’s the painting that she is about to create, while still sitting and peering into the mirror. Here, as with other works, Laserstein was trying to understand perspective, allowing us to see together with her rather than seeing through her, says Krausse.

Not a ‘party girl’

Another major work from Laserstein’s early years is “Russian Girl with Compact” (1928), which depicts a young woman from Russian émigré circles in Berlin – which didn’t keep Laserstein from winning a prize in a competition of portraits of German women, sponsored by a cosmetics firm. The way in which the artists presented the émigrée as a young, up-to-date urban woman who is meticulous about her appearance, suited the growing discourse at the time about the importance of fashion and grooming in exhibitionist Western society.

Krausse stresses that, “In Laserstein’s portraits of women, as opposed to portraits created by male artists of the time, the model is not perceived as an object, but rather as a subject. She presents them as women with natural self-confidence, without provocations or eroticism, and also without a perception of ‘sweet’ femininity, as can be found in other female painters of the time. There is no difference in the way she paints men and women.”

An example of this is one of her important paintings, “In the Tavern” (1927), which portrays two women, each sitting alone in a café. The painting, which is not included in the present exhibition, was originally acquired by the Berlin municipality and later confiscated by the Nazis, who described it as “degenerate art.”

One of the paintings on exhibition in Berlin. Credit: Anja Elisabeth Witte / © VG Bil

That work is also exceptional among Laserstein’s oeuvre because it focuses on the new and vibrant urban culture of the early 20th century – a subject that preoccupied many artists during her time but for the most part did not arouse her curiosity. Krausse explains that Laserstein was not involved in the Bohemian cultural scene in Weimar Berlin.

“She wasn’t a ‘party girl’ and didn’t spend time with the great artists of the period at the Romanisches Café or other places in the city where they would go,” says the historian. “Moreover, avant-garde was not her natural milieu, and when she began her independent career in the late 1920s, Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism were in any case no longer in vogue. She worked parallel to the artists of the New Objectivity movement, including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad, and she really resembles some of them in her post-Expressionist style and her return to naturalistic painting. But as opposed to them, her work does not contain scathing political and social criticism.”

During her most productive years Laserstein received a prize from the Prussian Ministry of Art, joined the association of women artists in Berlin and had a solo exhibition at the highly regarded gallery of Berlin art dealer Fritz Gurlitt. But shortly after Hitler’s government took over, she was banned from participating in shows and her studio was closed.

Laserstein earned a living as an art teacher at a Jewish school in Berlin and in 1937, after being invited to mount an exhibition in Stockholm, took advantage of the opportunity in order to flee, taking a selection of her paintings with her. In Sweden she made a living mainly from selling work on consignment. She tried unsuccessfully to help relatives who remained behind in Germany: Her sister survived in hiding in Berlin during the Holocaust, but their mother was arrested and died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

After the war Laserstein visited Germany and renewed her relationship with her friend Rosa, but she never returned to live in the country. She lived in the Swedish city of Kalmar and although she continued to paint and exhibit from time to time, she found it difficult to revive her reputation – both because of her style, which didn’t suit the new trends in European art, and because of her distance from the centers of the European art scene.

Before Laserstein died in 1993, however, she did witness the rediscovery of her work, which began in 1987 with an exhibition in London. It continued with greater momentum after her death and since the beginning of the millennium, her paintings have aroused great curiosity among curators, art scholars and collectors alike. Their prices have also been rising steadily in the past decade: “In the Tavern” was sold at public auction for 110,000 euros, and “Evening over Potsdam” was acquired by the New National Gallery in Berlin for 350,000 pounds sterling (about $435,800).

Among art-lovers in Israel Laserstein is still not very well known – although “Evening Over Potsdam” was one of the prominent works in the German art exhibition “Twilight Over Berlin,” held about four years ago at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The artist and the painting were also represented in a charming literary form in the 2018 Hebrew novel “The Modern Dance” by Michal Sapir, where they come to life in a story inspired by the writings of Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, which takes place in Berlin during the twilight of the Weimar Republic.

“We were guests with a group of friends at an evening meal in the home of painter Lotte … in Potsdam,” writes Sapir, in the voice of the main protagonist, who is looking at the city spread out before his eyes beneath a cloudy and murky sky. “Dora was wearing her sleeveless yellow summer dress. The air breathed heavily in the oppressive heat of late summer. On the table leftover bread from the meal and a few pale apples and pears were scattered. I stood there on the balcony permeated with a feeling of endless exile …

“Lotte poured milk into the coffee cups. Erwin Kraft [another character] still had a half-full glass of beer in his hand … I returned to the table and looked at my friends who were sitting immersed in a soft twilight melancholy, averting their pensive glances from one another. I imagined them, each one of them, replacing their facial expressions with the numbers on the face of an alarm clock, which rang for 60 seconds every minute.”

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