LOTTE LASERSTEIN : FACE TO FACE
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
Laserstein was born in 1898. Her father died in 1902, and the family
eventually moved to
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
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
Did Laserstein ever reflect the social or political situation in the
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
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
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
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
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