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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Valeska Gert

I had never heard of Valeska Gert, but there was something about her pixyish face, with its rubbery, slightly bruised features that called to mind other clowns with melancholy overtones: Judy Garland as photographed in clown make-up by Richard Avedon, or Pagliaccio. A Sally Bowles meets Carolee Schneemann hybrid, Gert was a prominent figure in the cabaret life of 1920s Berlin and would go on to make a name for herself as an envelope-pushing performance artist who would be a muse for both the Dadaists and the Punks.

Gert was fearless, taking a provocative and anarchic approach to performing, using her body to confront societal conventions. Informed by Berlin’s cabaret scene and the nascent film industry, Gert developed a performance practice that combined theatre, dance, cinema, poetry and song. She loved burlesque and the grotesque, the marginal and the unexpected, incorporating all this into her performances. 

Born Gertrud Valesca Samosch to a well to do Jewish family, Gert began taking dance lessons when she was nine. Acting classes would follow. World War I adversely affected her family's fortunes, forcing her to earn her own way. She joined a dance group and created revolutionary dances that were performed at various theaters around Berlin. 

In the 1920s, she used dance to express such unconventional subjects as a traffic accident or an orgasm. Pause was performed at a movie theater during the interval when film reels were changed. Gert came onstage and literally just stood there doing nothing in an effort to showcase inactivity and silence amidst the chaos of modern life. It was revolutionary.

At the same time, Gert was also performing at Berlin's famous cabaret, Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke). She toured with her dances: Dance in Orange, Boxing, Circus, Japanese Grotesque, Death and Whore.

Gert appeared in several early films including G. W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1931). 

In 1933, Gert was banned from the German stage because she was Jewish. She left Germany and lived in London for a time where she worked both in theatre and film, including a role in the experimental short film, Pett and Pott.  

Gert emigrated to the States in 1938, settling in New York. She supported herself by washing dishes and nude modeling. Cabaret remained a focus and in 1941, she opened Beggar Bar. Living Theater founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina worked for her, as did Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams.  

Gert returned to Europe in 1947, spending time in Paris and Zurich. She returned to Berlin, opening the cabaret Hexenküche (Witch's Kitchen) in 1948. She moved to Sylt, an island in the Frisian Archipelago where she opened Ziegenstall (Goat Shed). 

In 1965, Gert had a role in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. She also appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day and Volker Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grace. In 1978 German film director Werner Herzog asked her to play the real estate broker Knock in his remake of Nosferatu. She died two weeks before filming began.

In 2010, Valeska Gert’s importance was finally acknowledged with Pause: the Art of Valeska Gert presented by the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Art, Hamburger Bahnhof.  

Lotte Laserstein

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.