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 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.