Lotte Laserstein

Lotte Laserstein
(Preussisch Holland, Prussia 1898 - 1993 Kalmar, Sweden)

Portrait of a Young Woman, c.1930

Oil on canvas, 37 x 24.5 cm
Signed lower right Lotte Laserstein.

Lotte Laserstein, Berlin and Sweden[1] Swedish private collection

Anna-Carola Krausse, Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993); Leben und Werk, catalogue raisonné, Berlin 2006, M 1930/13

Authenticated by Dr. Anna-Carola Krausse.


Lotte Laserstein’s ‘preoccupation with the portrayal of people’[2] had emerged very early in her career and the teaching of Professor Erich Wolfsfeld (1885-1956) at the Berlin Academy of Art served to strengthen it. Wolfsfeld was a virtuoso draughtsman and he too had a penchant for the same genre. He also maintained a somewhat skeptical attitude towards the avant-garde which Laserstein shared. She was admitted to the Academy in 1921-2 and was a pupil of Wolfsfeld’s for the duration of her studies. In her final two years at the Academy she advanced to become his Meisterschülerin and remained loyal to his teaching.[3] By then she had a studio to work in and a good supply of models and painting materials. However her financial situation was precarious. In 1925 she was to meet Traute Rose, who would be her close friend and ‘favorite model’.

Although Traute Rose was Laserstein’s favorite model, she is not the subject of the present painting. The identity of the young woman depicted in the portrait remains unresolved. But Laserstein’s sensitive handling of the subject certainly suggests that the relationship between sitter and artist was close. A photograph of the painting found among Laserstein’s papers after her death documents its importance to her. When the Nazi regime drove her out of public activity as an artist, life in Berlin became impossible and in 1937 she fled Germany to escape persecution, taking the portrait with her into exile.

The young woman’s expression is pensive and has a hint of melancholy. It echoes certain aspects of old master representations of the Madonna. Laserstein focuses on the fall of light and shadow on the face and neck of the sitter, exploiting the contrast to the rich tonality of the background, neckline and hair. Modelling is executed in rapid, feathery brushstrokes to create a palpable effect of plasticity. The young woman’s pose and expression recall a painting executed a few years earlier titled Contemplation (1925).[4] This, too, has meditative character and a religious dimension.

Born in Prussia, Laserstein was a Berlin-based Neue Sachlichkeit painter. As an independently minded woman of Jewish descent in a male-dominated art world, she failed to comply with conventional norms on a number of counts. It is therefore particularly remarkable that she was one of the first women to be admitted to the Berlin Academy of Art in 1921 – going on to win the Academy’s gold medal in 1925. After leaving the Academy she set up a studio in Berlin where she painted and taught. She exhibited widely across Germany and showed three paintings at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Part Jewish, in 1937 she was ostracized from public life and no longer able to work. Forced to leave Germany, she settled in Sweden, where she remained for the rest of her life. In the war years and later she managed to scrape a living by painting portraits. But like many other exiled artists of her generation she never succeeded in regaining the international recognition she had once had.

As an émigré in Sweden, Laserstein endured artistic and social isolation. Her career was overlooked and her oeuvre largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1980s. This led to a groundbreaking exhibition at the London gallery Agnew’s in 1987. Numerous exhibitions at museums and galleries followed. German museums now hold important examples of her work. In autumn 2018, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt will host an exhibition dedicated solely to Laserstein.[5]

[1] Documented by a photograph of the work found in Laserstein’s papers after her death (N). See Anna-Carola Krausse, Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993); Leben und Werk, catalogue raisonné, Berlin 2006, M 1930/13.

[2] Krausse, op. cit., p. 54 (citing Wolfsfeld).

[3] Laserstein and Wolfsfeld remained in contact after she left the Academy. He occasionally supplied her with painting materials, particularly after the Nazis seized power in 1933. See Krausse, op. cit., p. 53, note 170.

[4] Lotte Laserstein, Contemplation, 1925, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 46.2 cm, Krausse M 1925/3.

[5] The solo exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt will run from 19 September 2018 - 13 January 2019 and travel to the Moderna Museet in Malmö. This will be the first exhibition dedicated solely to Laserstein in Germany (outside of Berlin).

The London gallery Agnew’s staged a further exhibition of Laserstein’s work titled ‘Lotte Laserstein’s Women’.

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