Obituary: Lotte Laserstein
Friday 26 February 1993
LOTTE LASERSTEIN's pictures have recently become known in Britain and further afield as a result of two exhibitions, one held at Agnew's and the Belgrave Gallery in London in 1987, with a follow-up exhibition at Agnew's three years later. She was a very fine painter in the academic figurative tradition.
German by birth, Laserstein studied for six years at the Berlin Academy under Erich Wolfsfeld, a painter known for his realistic renderings of beggars and down-and-outs, and was for her last two years his Atelier Meisterschuler - star pupil - which entitled her to her own studio at the academy. Despite the bias against women - only a handful were enrolled - Laserstein won the academy's gold medal in 1925. This was a time of runaway inflation in Germany and Laserstein had to take morning jobs to survive. Her best earnings came from illustrating an anatomical textbook for which she had to draw cadavers preserved in hydrochloroform. Often when her morning's work ended she would have to sprint over a bridge to get to the food shops before two o'clock - at which hour the mark was revalued and food prices went up.
After leaving the academy in 1925, Laserstein set up her own studio in Berlin, where she painted and taught. During her 10 years there, she moved away from the tightly controlled linear style which characterises her earlier work, towards a broader, more fluid approach. She participated in a number of exhibitions; her first one-woman show was at Fritz Gurlitt's celebrated Berlin gallery in 1930. She also exhibited at the 1937 Paris World Fair.
In 1937 she was offered an exhibition at the Galleri Modern in Stockholm, and this led to a number of portrait commissions. After the war came, being a quarter Jewish, she decided to stay in Sweden, where she developed a teaching practice and became well-known as a portrait painter. Very few people saw her early Berlin pictures which she had brought with her to Sweden.
When I visited Laserstein in the summer of 1986, in the course of preparing an exhibition of her teacher Erich Wolfsfeld, I found her surrounded by her early works which covered every inch of available wall-space in her small apartment in Kalmar in southern Sweden, and quite a bit of floor-space as well. They were a revelation. Her masterpiece was a picture seven feet long showing five young people grouped round a table on a balcony with an extensive view of Potsdam. The preparations for this picture were elaborate, as her regular model Traute Rose wrote - 'The very long canvas was first transported to Potsdam on the Berlin railway, and then by horse-drawn carriage to its destination with friends who had a roof garden looking over Potsdam . . .' She used her friends and relations in Berlin, as well as Rose, as models and her influences can be traced through the 19th-century German realist painters Adolf von Menzel and Wilhelm Leibl to Holbein.
Aged 89, Laserstein flew over to London for her 1987 exhibition, as she did for the later show, which also featured the work of Erich Wolfsfeld and Gottfried Meyer, a former pupil of hers.
Lotte Laserstein was a forceful and determined lady who told me that she decided at the age of 11 that she would never marry, but devote her life to painting. She survived a difficult time in Berlin under the Nazis - her mother died at Ravensbruck - and built up a career for herself in Sweden after having arrived with the equivalent of pounds 2 in her pocket. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity of helping to bring her work to a wider public.
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