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Berlinische Galerie presents an exhibition of 58 works by Lotte Laserstein
Lotte Laserstein. Face to Face, Berlinische Galerie, exhibition view, Photo: Harry Schnitger © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

BERLIN.- Berlin’s Lotte Laserstein (1898–1993) was one of the most sensitive portrait painters of the early Modernist period when tradition vied with innovation. Already at the age of 30 years she was a well-known and successful artist.

The Return of Modern Realism
We live in a period marked by rediscoveries of artists whose careers were cut short, often brutally, by the turmoil of the 20th century, the age of extremes. And realism is on the way back. For several decades it was quite rightly a valid response to reject grandiose feudal self-projections, old chestnuts about the meaning of beauty and realism in the classical vein. The art of a new society order called for experiments and exploring of new perspectives. Now the art world is finding that contrasts between form and formlessness, between the figurative and conceptual symbolism, can once again broaden and enrich perception.

Images of People, Intimacy, Sensuality
Lotte Laserstein had a talent for combining two universes. She played with quotes from art history but also with hallmarks of Post-Impressionism – its flat forms and its brushwork. Her œuvre is dominated by images of people, by intimacy, warmth and sensuality. She never idealised her models, but lent them dignity and a powerful presence, whether they were clothed or naked. Laserstein was a gentle, empathetic chronicler of the 1920s and 1930s: she painted women and men of the new era and of every class as naturally as she found them. She used pictorial means to defy contemporary social norms about gender roles.

Berlin’s public museum of modern art, photography and architecture presents 58 works – 48 paintings and 9 drawings among them – by Laserstein along with documents reflecting her professional heyday in Berlin and her exile in Sweden. The Berlinische Galerie has taken over the exhibition named “Face to Face” – organised by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. In Berlin, these works by Laserstein have been expanded by portraits, landscapes, late works and also by paintings from her artistic environment in the 1920/30s. Comparisons with Konrad Felix müller, George Grosz, Max Liebermann, Christian Schad, for example, demonstrate what makes Laser stein’s realism so special and original.

Misery and splendour of a lifetime
Lotte Laserstein was born in 1898 in the town now known as Pasłęk, then in Eastern Prussia. Her father was a Protestant pharmacist with Jewish roots. He died when she was only three years old. Her mother then took her two daughters Lotte and Käte to live with her own mother, also widowed, in a upper middle-class household in Danzig (now Gdańsk). From 1908 Lotte was already being taught to paint by the artist Elsa Birnbaum, her mother’s sister.

In 1912 the family moved to the capital Berlin. In 1921, after a full school education, Lotte began studying at Berlin’s art academy, the Akademische Hochschule. In the new Weimar Republic, women were finally being admitted to public art schools. Her teacher there was Erich Wolfsfeld, and one of her idols was the Naturalist Wilhelm Leibl. She graduated from the master class in 1927 after winning several distinctions. Laserstein shot to success in the art world, participating in about 22 competitions and group exhibitions within a short space of time. The first acquisition of a Laserstein by the City of Berlin soon followed in 1928. While her art betrays elements of New Objectivity, which was very popular at the time, her style is neither objectifyingly cool nor heatedly socio-critical. In 1931 she had her first solo show at Fritz Gurlitt’s gallery in Berlin.

With the seizure of power by the Nazis, 1933, she was banned from participating in public cultural life in Germany. For a few years she taught art at a private Jewish school. In 1937 she emigrated to Stockholm, where she was being honoured with an exhibition at the Galerie Moderne. From there she received news of her mother’s internment and execution. At least her sister managed to survive by hiding underground in Berlin. In 1954, after turbulent years spent in isolation from the international art scene, Laserstein moved to Kalmar in southern Sweden, where commissioned portraits helped her to earn a livelihood. Her international rediscovery began during her lifetime with exhibitions in London in 1987 and 1990 at Thos. Agnew & Sons and The Belgrave Gallery. She died in Kalmar in 1993. Her art returned to Germany for the first time in 2003 with the exhibition “Lotte Laserstein: My Only Reality” at the Ephraim-Palais in Berlin, organised by Das Verborgene Museum and curated by Anna-Carola Krausse in partnership with the foundation Stadtmuseum Berlin.

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