The recent acquisition of Lotte Laserstein’s Evening Over Potsdam (Abend über Potsdam, 1930) by the Berlin National Gallery offers the opportunity for the public to view a painting that is by any measure a masterful depiction of modernist discord and youthful ennui. As a work of art it is prescient and hugely evocative.
As an independent female artist in Germany during the 1920s, Laserstein’s work incorporated a range of metropolitan subjects, such as fashionable Neue Fraus, tennis players, journalists, a motorcycle rider in his leathers, often in urban settings. As a painter, she was decisive mark-maker, typically combining a linear, hard-edged naturalism with a muted palette of tones, and through this combination articulated a sincerity – calm, reflective, cerebral – that even to a contemporary audience is surprising and full of nuance.
Many of Laserstein’s subjects accord with the artistic customs of the day, following artists such as Otto Dix, Christian Shad and Rudolf Schlichter in exploring the urban tensions of modern Germany. Her interrogation of these themes remained more naturalist than the artists mentioned, but no less connotative of metropolitan identity and the instability of the subject. Never quite adopting the magic realist manner of the Neue Sachlichkeit school, with it’s leanings towards alienation and satire, Laserstein was nonetheless a deeply thoughtful painter who explored her subjects with a perceptive eye. As a female artist, there can be no doubt that many of her works explore topical issues of female self-identity and the changing structure of the society in which she lived.
One hallmark of Laserstein’s work is the inclusion of a mirror in which the model (usually female) is shown looking or is reflected back to the audience. This interplay of “views” highlights the artist’s awareness of the audience’s participation in the image and the possibility of subverting the normal interrogation of a female subject as an object of masculine desire. The inclusion of a mirror serves to destabilise the power-play between audience and subject, and therefore opens up Laserstein’s work to a more ambiguous reading.
In a similar manoeuvre, Laserstein produced several painted studies where she included herself as the active artist engaged in a portrait of a model. In Artist and Model in the Studio, Berlin, Wilmersdorf painted in 1928, the foreground depicts a nude model reclining on a white sheet. In the middle-ground the artist herself appears at her easel, painting either the very painting we are looking at – in this case, the whole image would have been reflected in a mirror for the artist – or else an alternative view of the model as seen from the rear. In the background, snow-covered rooftops of this particular district of Berlin stretch into the distance.
At first glance it is a standard life study of a nude, yet the positioning of the artist within the picture indicates that we are in the presence of an artist’s self-portrait too. The first effect of this is to enable female model to destabilise the implication of a sexualised image. Instead, as viewers of the work, we play witness to the artist undertaking of a formal study. As such, we are unable to fit the relation of artist and model into the more typical masculine-feminine scheme of ‘commercial exchange’, at least not with any obvious implications for gender relations. The fact that the artist has her own studio, which she is consciously or unconsciously showing off, and also the freedom to paint nude models, are symbols of her modernity. The insertion of herself into the painting might therefore be read as a triumphal gesture, a proud depiction of her own liberty within her chosen profession. Moreover, the female nude, so often the territory of masculine modernity, becomes the territory of female modernity in a process of reclamation.
There are, however, points of incongruity. We are witnessing the traditional practice of life-study with all its institutionalised associations, and if the gendered motif of the female nude as an object of artistic inspiration is at all relevant, then the idea finds confirmation in this picture. Moreover, the positioning of the artist, with her ‘androgynous’ looks behind the model whilst we the viewer take up a more direct position over the model, perhaps suggests that the artist’s relationship with her vocation is more ambiguous than at first glance. Recalling Griselda Pollock’s interest in art as a site of the production of sexual difference, and also her conception of the ‘emptied-space’ of feminine representation, we might surmise that in this painting the artist is forced to tread a negotiated path between her idea of herself as an artist and the gendered artist of traditional art history. Marsha Meskimmon makes a similar reading: ‘Read within the context in which Laserstein was working during the period, this image is paradigmatic of the problematic relationship between the categories of ‘women’ and ‘artist’ and attempts to find some form which they can be brought together meaningfully.’
Laserstein, a German artist born just before the turn of the twentieth century, was one of only a small number of females admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts during the Weimar period. Further, she won its gold medal in 1925, and for the last two years of her training became the star pupil (Atelier Meisterschüler) of her teacher Erich Wolfsfeld, an honour that entitled her to her own studio. After leaving the academy she set up a private studio in Berlin where she painted and taught students. She exhibited widely across Germany and showed three paintings at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Later, she was forced to leave Germany being one-quarter Jewish, and settled in Sweden where she enjoyed a prosperous, if more conventional, career until her death in 1990.
When Laserstein painted Evening Over Potsdam the she was in her early thirties and still in the early stages of her career. Yet, few of her other paintings achieve the same monumentality and breadth of feeling as this work. Given the backdrop of the Weimar Republic in Germany, her depiction of the late afternoon remnants of a luncheon party indicate a cosmopolitan range of social interactions cut through with personal unease. It is a virtuoso depiction of youthful pathos and shared disquiet, with its cast of five characters (and a sleepy dog) positioned across the seven foot canvas in various poses of naturalistic languor. Behind is the city of Potsdam, beautifully depicted in muted brown and yellow tones.
The centre of the canvas is occupied by young lady who through her posture creates a triangular axis upon which the remainder of the composition depends. The two men positioned on either side of her add a subtle ebb-and-flowing movement to the formal arrangement as one leans inwards and the other reclines with his right leg extended. This contrapuntal movement helps to underpin the psychological tension of the piece that is reasonably inferred by the expressions of these three central characters, upon which a narrative of friendship, betrayal, anxiety and concern might reasonably be projected. The two female models at either end of the canvas add further formal structure to the work as two our pillars connected by the horizontal axis of the large table.
As an artist Laserstein excelled at using architectural and structural elements to add psychological facets to her work. Indeed, it is the very language of classicalism that provides poignancy, providing a framework that is suitably subverted through the eloquence of imperfection. Pride and power must always yield to oncoming apprehension. This tragic dualism, painted in the realist style, gives Laserstein’s work an allure, for it seems to tell us something of the age, and of the universal condition too.