Edited by Alexander Eiling and Elena Schroll

Prestel. 192 pages. £45. ISBN 978-3-7913-5823-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m not sure if Lotte Laserstein’s name will bring any nods of recognition from regular visitors to British art galleries. Little of her work appears to be available in this country, apart from some items in the fine collection of German art at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. There may be a variety of reasons for this, but the main one could well be that Laserstein spent the greater part of her adult life in Sweden. She had gone to live there in 1937 when it became obvious that she would be unable to continue functioning as an artist after the Nazis came to power. She didn’t stop painting when she settled in Sweden, but her work was little-known outside that country, even after the war ended. One of the essays in this catalogue puts it more bluntly: “Laserstein’s name fell into oblivion beyond the borders of Sweden”.

Laserstein was born in 1898. Her father died in 1902, and the family eventually moved to Danzig to be near her grandmother. Her aunt, who ran a small drawing and painting school, recognised that the young Lotte had some talents in that line and gave her lessons. In 1912 the family moved to Berlin. In 1918 she graduated from a grammar school for girls, but was unable to enrol at art academies because women were barred from entry. She then enrolled at the university to study philosophy and art history.  

The art academies were finally opened to women, and by 1925, Laserstein had become a “master student of Erich Wolfsfeld”. His work “bore the strong stamp of nineteenth century realism”, and was to have a major influence on her. Some charcoal drawings of male nudes, dating from the mid-1920s, demonstrate how confident and skilled she was with human anatomy. Her ambition was to achieve success as a portraitist, and she frequently used people she knew as models. The oil painting, My Grandmother, from 1924 is revealing and effective, as is Self-Portrait before a Red Curtain from around the same period.

The 1920s were years when the so-called “New Objectivity” was in vogue, though the term could cover a number of current styles, “encompassing such reticent, austere and rigorously classical pictorial language found in the compositions of Christian Schad and Alexander Kanoldt; the magical realism championed by Franz Radziwill and Georg Schrimpf; but also a kind of exaggerated, caricature-like style that decried the social hardships of the time, as seen in the works of Otto Dix, Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler”.

Did Laserstein’s work fit into any of the above-mentioned categories? It doesn’t seem so, judging from what is to be seen in the catalogue. It is true that she did sometimes picture aspects of the contemporary world, as in her 1929, The Motorcycle Driver, and also Tennis Player from the same year. She additionally captured something of the Weimar years when she used Traute Rose as her model: “Her phrenotype corresponded to the ideal of the time. An athletic, androgynous, emancipated young woman with short hair and loose-fitting clothes. Traute embodied the New Woman type propagated in the magazines, films and advertising of the interwar period”.

Traute Rose continued to be portrayed in many of Laserstein’s works until 1937. The relationship between the artist and the model is largely a matter for speculation. That a degree of intimacy existed between them seems to be evident in certain paintings. Some viewers might want to read a sexual meaning into an exceptionally-fine painting, In My Studio, which shows Laserstein at her easel and, in the forefront of the canvas, a naked, provocatively-posed Rose. But a perhaps deeper relationship is caught in the less-dramatic, I and My Model, which has Rose looking over Laserstein’s shoulder at what she is doing. The hand resting lightly on the painter’s shoulder, and the closeness of the two women, gives me a greater sense of their involvement with each other.

There is little doubt that Laserstein was ambitious. She entered competitions, had her work published in magazines, and joined various art associations, though the associations were usually what might be called conventional organisations and not directed towards any kind of radicalism. It’s not easy to imagine her associating with the painters who so graphically portrayed the prostitutes, fat businessmen, disabled soldiers, hustlers, and hungry workers, any more than it is to imagine her prowling the night-clubs, bars, and ill-lit back streets in search of subject-matter. There is a painting called In the Tavern, which shows a lone, thoughtful-looking woman sitting at a table, though there is nothing to suggest that either her, or her surroundings, are anything less than respectable. But, according to Anne Carola A. Krausse, it was still looked on as “degenerate” by National Socialists because the woman represented “an emancipated, composed and confident New Woman from the public spaces of the Weimar Republic”.  

Did Laserstein ever reflect the social or political situation in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. She must have been well-aware of the rising political tensions, the turmoil on the streets, and other similar factors. What has been described as her “masterpiece”, the 1930 group-portrait, Evening over Potsdam, might be read as a kind of oblique comment on the generally worsening atmosphere as the effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash began to be felt world-wide, and the Nazis were increasingly making their presence felt. There is something of a sombre tone pervading the picture.  The five people in it do not appear to be in a happy frame of mind. The catalogue refers to “a general disillusionment and lack of orientation”, and also describes “uncertainty drenched with melancholy”. A “pervasive melancholy” may have been a Laserstein characteristic.

A later painting, the 1934 The Discussion, might also be interpreted as making a social comment, even if indirectly. Its date could be significant. By 1934 Hitler was well-entrenched and any form of dissent was being silenced. Are the three men in the picture discussing politics? The painting is dark in tone and the men seem to be in a small room. It’s not exactly conspiratorial in its inferences, but it does tend to suggest that they’ve gathered somewhere where they’re not likely to be overheard by anyone unsympathetic to what they’re talking about. Laserstein, when asked in later years, insisted that the obviously animated discussion was about art, not politics. But it’s difficult not to think otherwise. Even a discussion about art could have been dangerous as the authorities increasingly denied many painters the right to exhibit or teach, and drew up guidelines covering what could be portrayed and in which manner.

There may be an interesting comparison to be made between The Discussion and the 1948 Evening Conversation, which has a much more relaxed feeling about it. It’s perhaps not surprising when one considers the difference suggested in the two words, “discussion” and “conversation”.

Laserstein was affected by the rulings of the new regime. In addition to her activities as an artist she had run a small painting school, but was forced to close it down. She had been baptised as a Christian, but because “both her paternal grandparents and her maternal grandfather” were Jewish,  she was categorised as Jewish under the Nazi race laws. By 1937 it was obvious to her that she would no longer be able to function as an artist in Germany and she moved to Sweden. A marriage of convenience to a Swedish citizen was arranged for her so that she acquired the right to stay in the country permanently. She made attempts to get her mother and sister out of Germany, but failed. Her mother died in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her sister survived in hiding throughout the war, often in squalid conditions.

In Sweden Laserstein continued to paint, producing portraits of people in the upper ranks of Danish society. It is suggested that her work lost something of its “edge” when she left Germany: “Many of the works she created in the Swedish countryside lack the captivating intensity and psychological depth that characterised the personal artistic style of the portraits she painted in Berlin”. There are also references to the “increasingly commercial character of her art”. Necessity forced her to produce paintings to order. It is noted that in two 1939 paintings, Woman in a Café and Woman in Blue with Veiled Hat, “her palette lightened, sometimes even to the point of watercolour-like daintiness, presumably in deference to the tastes of her new patrons”. One item from her Swedish years that I do like is the 1938 Self-Portrait at the Easel in which, as the accompanying caption says, “Laserstein pictures herself proudly at work, firmly determined to continue her interrupted career in new surroundings”. 

Maureen Ogrocki says that : “So far, 43 solo and 33 group exhibitions by the artist have been documented during her 55 years of emigration”. And furthermore, “it is estimated that the artist created 10,000 works during this period, 1,000 of which were probably commissioned portraits”. It’s impossible to comment on their overall quality as there are only a few examples in the catalogue.

I indicated earlier that one of the reasons for Laserstein being neglected for so many years was the fact that she lived for such a long time in Sweden. There are other possible reasons. When there have been re-evaluations of the work of German artists, often male, active during the years between 1918 and 1933 the emphasis has often been on those who were frequently politically involved, and whose work was included in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937. Some, at least, of Laserstein’s work was condemned by the Nazis, but it wasn’t used in the exhibition. This may have inclined researchers in later years to overlook her.

There is, also, the question of her essentially formal, almost traditional methods of composition. She wasn’t an experimenter and that, coupled with the fact that her work didn’t, on the whole, portray the social and political controversies and concerns of the Weimar years, or incorporate avant-garde ideas about representation, may have limited interest in it. There are a few hints here and there, perhaps, of the role of the New Woman, but even those are restricted to straightforward portraits of her independence and physical appearance rather than her political involvements and activities.

When critics and academics write books, and curators mount exhibitions, they often like to select artists who will illustrate a thesis they have already formulated. Alexander Eiling makes a good point when he says: “Retrospective view of art history all too often mislead us into reading history as a succession of avant-gardes and, in the process, underestimating the art that corresponds more closely to the aesthetic norms of a given era”. And so, talented artists like Lotte Laserstein can too easily be written out of history, and their work, with all its virtues, seen as unimportant or minor, at beat. We lose a lot when it is.

Lotte Laserstein died in 1993. She once remarked that, despite living in Sweden for so many years, the kindness of the people, and having a successful career there, she never really felt at home in that country.

Lotte Laserstein: Face to Face has been published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 19 September, 2018 to 17 March, 2019, and the Berliniische Galerie, 5 April, 2019 to 12 August, 2019.