Back from Oblivion

As I left the Berlinische Galerie, after visiting the much anticipated exhibition of Lotte Laserstein, I was feeling overwhelmed and a bit melancholic. Overwhelmed – by Laserstein’s extremely powerful yet intimate works that drew me in as I passed from one exhibition hall to another; and melancholic – realizing how absurd it is that such a significant artist was unknown for so many years and almost forgotten. Who knows how many similar stories exist out there, waiting to be told? How many artists waiting to be rediscovered? Lotte Laserstein for sure is not the only one.

Lotte Laserstein, Liegendes Mädchen aud Blau, Ausschnitt, um 1931, Privatbesitz Berlin, Courtesy Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin, Foto: Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin,
Lotte Laserstein, Liegendes Mädchen aud Blau, Ausschnitt, um 1931, Privatbesitz Berlin, Courtesy Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin, Foto: Das Verborgene Museum, Berlin,

Lotte Laserstein was born in 1898 in Eastern Prussia (today’s Paslek in Poland). Her father who died when she was only three years old, was half Jewish. Her mother moved together with Lotte and her sister to Danzig to share a household with their aunt and widowed grandmother. It was quite a female dominated environment. Laserstein started taking lessons at her aunt’s private school of painting, becoming more and more confident of her artistic abilities. Later on, the family moved to Berlin and Laserstein was one of the first women who were accepted into Berlin’s Academy of fine Arts in 1921. She even won the Academy’s gold medal for outstanding artistic achievement, despite the conservative bias against women. Her career was promising – she showed in different galleries, took part in various competitions and ran a private school of painting. She owned her own atelier, actually located not that far from where I live, in west Berlin. Lotte Laserstein was a star indeed. However, as the NS regime got in power, her Jewish roots turned out to be a serious obstacle. Classified as “three quarters Jewish” it became more and more complicated for her to work as well as show her art. Eventually she was banned and forbidden to work and exhibit.

In what seems to be a remarkable ability to predict the future, Laserstein decided to flee from Germany, taking advantage of an invitation to exhibit in Stockholm. She left in 1937 (the same year the Nazis held their “Degenerate Art” exhibition) and never returned from Sweden. All her attempts to help her mother and sister to escape from Germany failed. Her sister managed to survive as she went into hiding in Berlin, while her mother was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she died in 1943 aged 75. Although Laserstein managed to start her life in exile, she was never as successful as she was in Germany, mostly producing commissioned portraits and landscapes. She was struggling both professionally and personally. Her works weren’t shown outside Scandinavia for 50 years.

Laserstein regained international recognition in 1987, with two exhibitions in prominent galleries in London. She was already 89 years old at the time but it didn’t stop her from flying to London to attend the opening. Her rediscovery in Germany though began only later, 10 years after her death, around 2003, with a major retrospective of her works. The exhibition was organised by Das Verborgene Museum (same one I wrote about on my previous blog post) at the Ephraim Palais.

In the past few years the art world is dealing with exile in different contexts. I have visited a few exhibitions dedicated to the rediscovery of artists who were forced into exile and therefore disappeared from public eye (for example: New/Old Homeland in Kunsthaus Dahlem). If those artists were not forced into exile, they would have surely had a significant part in the narrative of the German art history. Moreover, a new “Museum of Exile” is planned to be opened in Berlin in a few years. The museum will be dedicated to the commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who fled Nazi Germany to begin new lives abroad, among them artists, scientists etc. The initiators of the museum are Bernd Schultz, an art dealer and the co-founder of the “Villa Grisebach” auction house and the Nobel Prize for literature winner, Herta Müller.

“Face to Face” – the exhibition of Lotte Laserstein at the Berlinische Galerie, in collaboration with the Städel Museum, is definitely one of the largest exhibitions dedicated to an artist who was forced into exile, and rightly so. Comprising more than 60 of Lotte Laserstein’s excellent works, mainly portraits, full of warmth, sensitivity and empathy. Laserstein was highly skilled at both traditional and modern techniques yet her works were very different than the ones of her male contemporaries, such as Otto Dix and George Grosz which often dealt with political issues. In her works, she showed life as it is, without romanticizing or idealizing it. Furthermore, the presence of strong women is felt in her oeuvre as she often painted “the new woman” – androgynous, short cropped hair. She never idealized her models but gave them dignity and powerful presence, whether they were clothed or naked.

“Face to Face” – until the 12th of August 2019 at the Berlinische Galerie – Alte Jakobstraße 124-128, 10969 Berlin (closed on Tuesdays). Tours in English are offered as well, please visit the website for further details.

Mat Collishaw at Blain|Southern Gallery

Mat Collishaw, The Grinders Cease, December 2018, installation view, Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern, Photo: Trevor Good.

I first saw a Mat Collishaw work at Ngrongoro – a group exhibition initiated by artists during Berlin Gallery weekend 2018. In a dark room, on my way to see a Julian Rosenfeldt work, a lit mysterious carousel-like object caught my eye. As I approached, I noticed it was beautifully ornamented with butterflies, birds and other tiny figures. Abruptly it started spinning as the lights of the carousel, which was actually a zeotrope, flickered rapidly. It went faster and faster until a scene of a magical symphony of ecstatic flying birds and butterflies was revealed as a result of an optical illusion. The tension reached a peak and then stopped at once as the light turned off and the zeotrope stopped spinning. There was something so mesmerizing yet troubling and in the same time seductive in this work, I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

I started reading more and more about Mat Collishaw, the artist who is behind this manic fantasy zeotrope, and discovered an extremely intriguing and diverse artist, working with various medias such as sculpture, photography, installation and video (Lately also working with Virtual Reality). Collishaw is a key figure in the important generation of British artists who emerged from the Goldsmiths’ college of Art in the late 80’s, also known as the YBA -Young British Artists , who were launched in 1988 during the legendary show Freeze – a group show organised by Damien Hirst while he was still a student at the Goldsmiths College and included the works of fellow Goldsmiths students. In his works, Collishaw often references to art history, literature and actually any theme that intrigues him, or as he said in one of his interviews: “Anything is a potential source for an art work”. His works are often metaphoric and  ambiguousbeautiful and revolting, intriguing yet brutal and morbid, in a way that punch you right in the face.

Later on, in June 2018 I was lucky enough to see his show at the Rudolfinum Galerie in Prague and even made it to his book launch followed by a tour through the exhibition, guided by Collishaw himself who turned out to be a modest, unpretentious and very cool guy (:

In the beginning of December his exhibition The Grinders Cease opened at the excellent Blain|Southern Gallery in Potsdamer straße (an area which became in the past 7 years one of the most vivid and exciting gallery areas in Berlin). The enormous gallery, located in a venue that used to be the print room of “Der Tagesspiegel” newspaper, completely transformed itself in order to show Collishaw’s works (some require completely dark spaces),  such as Albion, 2017:

Mat Collishaw, The Grinders Cease, December 2018, installation view, Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern, Photo: Trevor Good.

On this upcoming Thursday, the 10th of January at 18:30 an artist talk with Mat Collishaw and Lisa Zeitz (editor in chief of Weltkunst magazine) will be held at the gallery. You are all invited! The entrance is free, for participation you can write your name in the comments to this post or RSVP at: Hope to see many of you there!

Mat Collishaw, The Grinders Cease, December 2018, installation view, Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern, Photo: Trevor Good.


The unfinished business of World War II

I went to see the exhibition “Gurlitt: Status Report” which opened a few days ago at the Gropius Bau. The 200 works shown, from a wide range of eras and styles, are spectacular and beautiful. However, the story behind this exhibition is what intrigues me the most as it involves two of my big passions – art and law, or shall we call it simply justice?

In order to understand the background of this extensive exhibition we should go back eight years ago to 2010, when an anonymous 77 year old pensioner by the name of Cornelius Gurlitt was caught during a routine customs check on a train coming back to Germany from Switzerland, with an unexplained amount of 9.000 Euros in cash in his pocket. 9.000 Euros, which were below the legal limit but enough to raise the suspicion of the German prosecution authorities and eventually lead to a treasure worth so much more.

As part of the investigation, the authorities arrived two years later to search Gurlitt’s three room apartment in Munich. They didn’t expect to find the following – an apartment packed with more than 1200 paintings, drawings and prints – some by renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Mark Chagall and many more. Some of the works were stored between food cans and juice boxes, full of dust…  Another 238 works were found later on hidden in Gurlitt’s small house in Salzburg.

When realizing that Cornelius Gurlitt inherited all those artworks from his father Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was Hitler’s art dealer, the works were immediately suspected as being confiscated or looted by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. For some reason, the discovery was kept in secret for more than one and a half years. it was only November 2013 when the public learned about the “Munich Art Hoard”, a discovery that stunned the art world.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was approved by the Nazis to be their art dealer despite his Jewish background (his grandmother was Jewish). He was dealing in works that were either looted from Jewish families or sold at lower-than-market prices under extreme duress by desperate people preparing to flee for their lives. After 1938 it became illegal for Jews to buy and sell art. Some private collections were confiscated.

Hildebrand also dealt with another type of artworks,  which were determined as “Degenerate Art”, and therefore were forbidden to be exhibited and supposed to be destroyed (in short: “Degenerate Art” is the term the Nazis used to describe modern art, that was considered as not matching their aesthetic Aryan norms and insulting German feelings. Works by Jewish or communist artists were included under this term as well. It is also the title of an exhibition held by the Nazis in Munich 1937, consisting 650 modernist artworks which were shown as insane and viewed as an evil plot against the German people, who were encouraged to mock them). From 1943 Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of the privileged few given a commission to purchase works for the “Führer museum”. It is clear that he also took the opportunity to expand his own collection…

After the war ended, Gurlitt managed to convince his American captors that most of his collection was destroyed during the firebombing in Dresden. Instead he clearly managed to hide it and later on pass it on to his son after his death. Recently, it has become apparent that he gave some to his daughter Renate as well.

To investigate the suspicions that the art works found at Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich were looted by Nazis, the German government provided funding to establish an international team of experts  in order to investigate their provenance. Cornelius has accepted an agreement under which any work identified as looted or confiscated will be restituted to its owners. After his death on May 2014 kunstmuseum Bern, which was his sole heir, ensured its commitment to fulfill the agreement as well.

unfortunately, the provenance of a great number of works is likely to remain unclear. It is very difficult,  almost impossible, to trace the owners of the majority of these pieces. Some of them did not survive the holocaust or had died already. Others were children at the time. How can they remember precisely what a painting looked like? Where will they find the documents to prove ownership? How can they prove after 70 years that the works were sold under pressure? And as expected, to this day only four works of the Gurlitt Trove have been returned to the descendants of their rightful owners.

Another example of how complicated it is to claim ownership in such cases can be found in the recent decision of a federal appeals court in New York that has rejected a claim of a Matisse painting owned by the National Gallery in London – read here.

I find it sad and astonishing that after more than 70 years this “unfinished business” is still alive and kicking. I hope that the descendants of those people who lost everything – their families, their identity, their property – will still receive some late justice.

  • Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany“, until the 7th of January 2019 at the Gropius Bau.
  • For those of you who want to delve more into this fascinating story, I highly recommend the book “The Munich art hoard – Hitlers dealer and his secret legacy” (Thames & Hudson) by Catherine Hickley, which I was so lucky to be recommended by my friend Sandy.