Lotte Laserstein - the forgotten Realist of the Weimar Republic

Written by Silke Lohmann | 12 July 2021

Lotte Laserstein was a German-born artist, whose enforced Jewish identity greatly influenced much of her work. Her self-portraits are particularly recognisable for the way she looks so directly at us, the viewer, and Agnews is showing a particularly fine example of one of these self-portraits during this summer's London Art Week. Also on view is a loan from a private collection of a painting of the artist and her muse, Traute Rose, which was purchased at the gallery's first Lotte Laserstein exhibition in 1987, which Lotte and Traute both attended.

Lotte Laserstein  was born in Preussisch Holland in Germany in 1898 and died in Kalmar, Sweden in 1993. The German-Swedish painter can rightly be considered as one of the most important figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century, whose skill and reputation have unjustly been forgotten. Laserstein studied painting under Erich Wolfsfeld at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and was, for the final two years of her tuition, his 'Atelier Meisterschülerin' (star pupil), an honour which brought with it her own studio at the Academy in which to paint. She went on to win the Academy's Gold Medal in 1925.

In the Weimar Republic she was celebrated as a shining talent, and art critics at the time predicted a brilliant career. An anonymous quote in 1930 reads: "She can paint. She has a pronounced sense of the earnestness of beauty. One feels it down to one's fingertips" However, her promising career came to an abrupt end when the Nazis seized power and declared Lotte a "three-quarter Jew". Until that moment she had attached no particular importance to Jewish religion or culture and for generations the Lasersteins had lived assimilated lives in Germany. They were not only non-practicing, but no longer thought of themselves as Jewish. However, the label not only destroyed her professionally, it ultimately threatened to destroy her life, and soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933, Lotte and her sister Käte began to experience the discrimination and defamation of government incited anti-Semitism.

She was barred from exhibiting in public, the last time seeming to be in the spring of 1934 at Galerie Nierendorf, where she participated in a group show entitled A Cross Section of 20th -Century Women's Art. Her only refuge for artistic activity was the Jewish Cultural Association, through which she took part in an exhibition of German Jewish artists at Parson's Galleries in London in 1934 and a private show in Berlin at the home of Gertrude Weil, wife of composer Hermann Weil, in 1935. She was also banned from exercising her profession that year. Laserstein would subsequently have had trouble procuring materials since paint and art equipment could only be purchased by showing a membership card. As such, she was rarely painting on canvas by the mid-thirties and instead was perfecting the oil on paper technique taught to her by Erich Wolfsfeld. During this period Laserstein tried to place work in exhibitions abroad, for example, in 1937 at the Salon d'automne in Paris. At this exhibition she showed works painted at an earlier date such as In my Studio (1928) and I and my Model (1929/30). One work which we do know she painted after 1933 is this self-portrait, which Dr. Anna-Carola Krausse has included in her revised version of the catalogue raisonné on the artist as datable to circa 1934/35.

Self-portrait en face Signed "Lotte Laserstein" (upper right) Oil on unlined canvas 13 x 12 ¼ in. (33 x 31cm.)
Agnews Gallery

Laserstein's life in Germany was becoming untenable when the Nazis proclaimed their "ethnic" art policy and launched a propagandistic satellite road show on "degenerate art" in December 1937. Laserstein was extended an invitation to exhibit at the Galerie Moderne in Stockholm, Sweden, and she used this as an excuse to flee Germany with some of her most important works, as a result of which a sizeable portion of her Berlin oeuvre was saved. Tragically, it proved far harder, and ultimately impossible, to bring her mother and her sister to Sweden. Her sister Käte went underground in 1942 surviving the war in hiding in Berlin, but their mother Meta was arrested and died at Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1943. 

Following these devastating events an "aversion" prevented Laserstein from returning to Germany after the war and she was never to return, describing her life as having been torn in two. She stayed in Sweden, but with her forced displacement Laserstein also vanished from the art historical map and the collective consciousness. Those works in public collections which might have recalled her existence and her creativity fell prey to the Nazi iconoclasm; and art historians anxious to rehabilitate disgraced artists in post-war decades were too preoccupied by the Abstract to take note of a Realist's impressive oeuvre.

In the 1980s she wrote a short passage describing this huge rift in her life and the part that her art played in it: "Reality? To me, that has always been my work, ever since I was a child. My life was carved into two chunks of almost equal size: childhood, youth, training, my first independent work and leaving Germany. Then a new laborious start in Sweden. If I had not had my own reality in my paint box, that little case that led me from Skåne via Stockholm to Jämtland, I could not have borne those years when everything was taken from me: family, friends and home. I retrieved some of it thanks to "my only reality."" (quoted in A.C Krausse, op. cit., 2018/19).

After the war years she managed to scrape a living by painting portraits, but like many other exiled artists of her generation, she never succeeded in regaining the international recognition she had once had, until a pioneering exhibition at Agnew's in London in 1987 led to a rediscovery of her oeuvre. Numerous exhibitions at museums and galleries followed, and German museums now hold important examples of her work: in 2010 the Nationalgalerie in Berlin acquired what she considered her opus magnum, Evening over Potsdam and more recently the Städel in Frankfurt purchased Russian Girl with Compact. Four of her paintings were included in the recent exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic; and a major retrospective her work was hosted by the Städel, Frankfurt, and the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, in 2018/19.  

Today, her Berlin period - of the 1920s and 1930s when she created works in the context of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) - is seen as the peak of almost eighty creative years. Her muse Traute Rose has been depicted in many of her works (including the work on loan which shows both the artist and her muse). They were both representatives of the 'New Woman' with their androgynous looks.

This present remarkable self-portrait was included in both legs of the 2018/19 Frankfurt and Berlin monographic exhibitions on the artist, Lotte Laserstein; Face to Face. It was described by Dr. Krausse in the first comprehensive retrospective of Laserstein's work at the Museum Ephraim-Palais, Berlin in 2003/4 as "Economic in its use of colour and virtuoso in its execution it focuses less on the professional painter than on Lotte Laserstein as a private individual. There are stronger signs here than in other self-portraits that she is exploring her face to mirror her soul.... which suggests the conflict Laserstein must have experienced in her new enforced Jewish identity" where "humiliation and pride go hand in hand".

When reviewing the Frankfurt and Berlin exhibition for the Apollo Magazine, Phoebe Blatton wrote, "Throughout her life, Laserstein was preoccupied with the enigma and confrontation of the returned stare , her own emerging as the most constant and profound of all. It is the portraits, specifically the self-portraits in which Laserstein's dark eyes look back at us under hooded lids, with an almost haughty upward tilt of her top lip, that make an indelible impression. A "face-to-face" suggests a deeper level of communication and, with this on offer, we have an obligation to return the gaze squarely, with eyes and mind open". Nowhere is this truer than in this portrait with its small format, frame-filling positioning of her head within the composition.

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