(Foto von Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski, 1930), Wikimedia Commons
born on November 28, 1898 in Preussisch-Holland, now Paslek/ Poland
died on January 21, 1993 in Kalmar/ Sweden
125th birthday on November 28, 2023
Lotte Laserstein had already won several awards when in 1929 the Berliner Abendblatt wrote: “We will have to remember the name of this artist; one of the very best of the younger generation, she is surely headed for a brilliant future.” She had also just reached the final round of a national competition, which gave her even greater recognition throughout the Weimar Republic.
Lotte Laserstein was proud to belong to the first generation of women who, after the introduction of women's suffrage in 1919, had been granted the right to attend universities and thus also gained access to art academies. She began her studies in 1921 with the painter and graphic artist Erich Wolfsfeld, whom she regarded as her personal “Meister,” and he remained a crucial presence and artistic mentor throughout her life. She later admitted that she would have liked to have taken up a love relationship with him, but that he had harbored “only” fatherly feelings for her. She graduated in 1927 and immediately acted on the decision she had made when five years old to become a freelance artist. She had informed her seven-year-old boyfriend at the time: “Don't waste your time. I am devoting my life to art!”
A role model for her choice of an independent lifestyle was her aunt Else Birnbaum, who had instructed her in painting as a child and whose influence she gladly accepted. (“She was not a good painter. And yet, she was so important to me. I owe her so much.”) Else lived with her mother Ida Birnbaum in Danzig, together with her sister Meta, who had moved there with her daughters Lotte and Käthe in 1903, one year after her husband's death. The Birnbaums were a wealthy and respected family and as assimilated Jews were part of the city’s “better circles.” By their own accounts Lotte and Käte experienced a happy childhood in this unusual, matriarchal family constellation. The lessons at Aunt Else’s painting school ended in 1912 when Meta moved to Berlin with her daughters to provide the girls with better educational opportunities.
Lotte Laserstein was one of the first painters to put women at the forefront of her art. When she met the photographer and painter Traute Rose in 1924, a friendship of profound personal and artistic significance was formed. Traute embodied the New Woman of the 1920s by whom Lotte was fascinated. The world war had knocked emperors and rulers from their thrones, democracies had emerged, and the first women's associations had attracted large followings. The traditional image of women and conventional gender roles were now a thing of the past. Corsets were flung aside; long skirts deemed passé; braids were cut off. Despite the horrific suffering of the war, the hour of the woman had arrived. For Lotte, Traute was the epitome of this New Woman: slender and athletic, feminine and graceful, casual and highly sensual, quite androgynous in appearance. The New Women played sports, wore their hair short, went to cafés alone, were strong and free, independent and self-confident - like Lotte herself. She was described as modern and cosmopolitan, courageous and unsentimental, passionate and rebellious, clever and humorous – and at the same time sensitive, warm-hearted and empathetic, with subtle powers of observation. Her works are evidence of the profound seriousness and quiet melancholy that characterized her as well.
In numerous portraits and nudes of Traute Rose, Laserstein used the mirror effect, so that the process of creating the work itself was recorded and at the same time double images of her and Traute Rose were created. This represented a fundamental change in the traditional hierarchical, “patriarchal” relationship between painter and model: the model was no longer an object, but was a coequal counterpart. Laserstein viewed these paintings, which are among her best, as a co-production and later aptly referred to them as “our pictures.”
In addition to Traute Rose, she portrayed children, artists, young and old people, people she encountered on the street in cosmopolitan Berlin, groups in conversation and groups enjoying a meal together. The group portrait Evening over Potsdam (now in the possession of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin) is considered a highlight of her work - her motifs are numerous, her mastery absolute. In terms of art historical classification, Laserstein remained true to the academic style, painting with old-masterly care and disregard for the modern currents of Expressionism and Dadaism. But she transformed the traditional style into a timeless depiction of the essential nature of humanity. Her figures seem almost molded out of the canvas, with this plasticity evoking a direct encounter with the viewer.
Many of her pictures fascinate to this day through their radiance. Perhaps it is the simultaneity of virtuosity in drawing and painting with the psychological depth of the persons portrayed. She did not choose the distanced, emotionally cold style of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) popular at the time, but painted instead with intense empathy. The gaze of the people depicted is captivating. They look inward and are completely at ease with themselves; at the same time, they look out at the viewer calmly and unabashedly while protected from exposure by a heedful painter. The portrait thus questions and mirrors the attentive viewer's own existential reality and truth. Lotte Laserstein's approach and artistic genius are evident in her pairing of emotional rapport with respect, of intimacy with mindful distance.
As is true for many other female artists, Laserstein's entire body of work belies a statement by Georg Baselitz, who as recently as 2013 claimed in a Spiegel interview: “Women don't paint as well, that's a fact.”
In 1933, just as Laserstein was becoming better known to the general public, Hitler seized power. Thus began for her, as for all forces striving for emancipation, the tragedy of her life. Although baptized a Christian, Lotte, the daughter of a Jewish mother, was considered “non-Aryan.” In 1935, she was expelled from the Third Reich’s Chamber of Fine Arts and banned from practicing her profession; her paintings were declared “degenerate art.” This made even the procurement of painting utensils almost impossible. The few works that have survived from these years—paintings in oil on paper—-are delicate pictures that resemble watercolors. She had begun to consider fleeing when she received an invitation in 1937 to an exhibition at the Modern Gallery in Stockholm and thus the opportunity to emigrate and salvage most of her works of art. Soon after her arrival she entered into a marriage of convenience with a Jewish merchant in order to obtain the Swedish citizenship crucial for her survival. She then tried desperately but in vain to bring her mother and sister to safety in Sweden. Käte and her female partner went underground and survived the Nazi regime severely traumatized; her mother was murdered in 1943 in the women's concentration camp in Ravensbrück.
A second life began for Lotte in exile in Sweden. In the first years she received numerous commissions, including from famous models, which made her proud and secured her livelihood. She continued to prefer portrait painting, but she also painted landscapes and eventually even the floral still lifes she disliked. She referred to this profitable work as “damn painting just to pay the bills” and labelled the results disparagingly “floral dabbling.” She felt at times that she had lost her grounding, and was plagued by self-doubt and depression. “They (the Nazis) destroyed everything we had, and ruined us within ourselves, thoroughly.” Lotte Laserstein also suffered greatly under the separation from her favorite model Traute Rose. In 1939 the emigrant Margarete Jaraczewsky (‘Madeleine’) had taken Traute Rose's place as a model and numerous portraits, doubles and self-portraits were created. However, these canvases lacked the tenderness and intimacy that characterized the works Lotte had created with Traute Rose, and Madeleine never became a second Traute.
In 1954 Lotte left Stockholm in the hope of better professional opportunities and moved to the small town of Kalmar in southern Sweden. She received commissioned orders, and regained both strength and self-confidence. In 1977 she was honored with the city's cultural award.
She finally achieved financial and thus also artistic independence in 1961, when she was officially recognized as a victim of Nazi persecution and granted reparation payments. She also received a pension and later the inheritance of her sister Käte, who died in 1965.
Although she was successful in earning her living as a painter in Sweden, she never again achieved the same quality as during her years in Berlin. From today's perspective, the paintings created before her emigration therefore represent the high point of her work.
As an artist of the Lost Generation, she had been largely forgotten by the art world after World War II; in 1987 the brilliant success of a joint exhibition at Agnew's and the Belgrave Gallery in London brought her back into the spotlight. Lotte Laserstein visited the exhibition together with Traute Rose and could thus experience international appreciation in her old age. Her rediscovery in Germany began in 2004 with the exhibition Lotte Laserstein. My Only Reality at the Verborgenes Museum in Berlin. This was followed in 2018 by Lotte Laserstein. Von Angesicht zu Angesicht at the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt and a show of her work at the Berlinische Galerie. Since then, her works have been shown in a wide variety of national and international exhibitions. Acquisitions by renowned museums and collections have ensured her return to the art historical canon.
Lotte Laserstein painted, as she had intended, until the end. She died at the age of 94.
In 2020, the tourist administration in Berlin placed a plaque commemorating Lotte Laserstein on her former home at 3 Jenaer Str. in Berlin-Wilmersdorf.
(Text from 2022; translated with DeepL.com; edited by Ramona Fararo, 2023.)
Please consult the German version for additional information (pictures, sources, videos, bibliography).
Author: Christa Matenaar
Reality? That is and has been my work since I was a child. If I hadn't had my own reality in my paintbox, this little suitcase ...I wouldn't have been able to get through the years when everything was taken away from me: family, friends and home.
What I do is not modern, but it is also not “academic.” It’s just me.
If a representation is to be more than an empty image on canvas, the spirit and soul of the object must be keenly grasped and captured but with only the smallest possible part of the artist’s own soul evident.
I paint where the brush goes.
If you hold the rights to one or more of the images on this page and object to its/their appearance here, please contact Fembio.