Lotte Laserstein would never be considered an avant-garde darling, but as the show of her work at the Berlinische Galerie reveals, Laserstein was a great painter. Her work is very much rooted in 19th century naturalism, but she took a modern approach when it came to her formal choices—composition and color, and even to her selection of subject matter, wielding her brush with enormous confidence and emotional sensitivity.
Laserstein enjoyed a good deal of success during the Weimar Era in Germany, but because she was Jewish, she all but disappeared from the German art scene after 1933. In 1937, she fled to Sweden.
Laserstein’s particular interest was portraits. These are not formal commissions, but rather character studies of people who interested her. She clearly enjoyed capturing their visages and dress and also, conveying the psychology of the sitter. They provide a wonderful window into the storied world of 1920s and early '30s Berlin. Take for instance, Portrait of Polly Tieck, which depicts a pleasant looking woman wearing a chic hat with a perforated brim that allows the sunlight to dapple her face. In edgy Weimar fashion, she sports a monocle on one eye. Or, the seductive lovelies portrayed in Woman with Red Beret and Girl Lying on Blue. Traute Rose in Green Pullover and Spanish Woman are looser, more indistinct renderings, but with dramatic compositions. The hands in the latter painting are just gorgeous.
Laserstein painted a series of Russians, emigres who had settled in Berlin following the Russian Revolution. Their existence hints at the international flavor of that city in the 1920s. She favored women as subjects and was drawn to the “new woman” whose androgynous look was reflective of their growing independence and presence in the workplace.
Laserstein painted many portraits of herself. Some show her at work with a model and sometimes an easel. They are mostly unflinching studies. She stares intently out, her face serious, almost confrontational. Laserstein has a plain, Northern European face—a face that could have been painted by Rembrandt or Reubens. It's fleshy with thick lips, slightly bulbous nose and hooded eyes. She renders it with great technical flair and with a complete lack of vanity. Self Portrait with Headscarf (pictured) from 1923 is deceptively simple. A nearly monochromatic study of paint and line working together in a special alchemy to form flesh and soul, the painting is on a scrap of un stretched canvas, framed under glass. Whether intentional or not, this treatment underscores the unvarnished, casualness of the image. Like the headscarf, or the woman depicted, it adds false simplicity to the work which serves to convey the exact opposite.
Laserstein remained in Sweden until her death. She survived the Nazis and the war, but she was isolated from the international art scene and her oeuvre suffered. She supported herself with portrait commissions, which paid the bills, but left her unfulfilled. And with good reason, they have none of the pizzazz of her earlier work.