oil on board
Painted in 1930, this monumental composition, Laserstein's masterpiece, looks backwards to art history and forwards to the imminent upheavals of mid-twentieth-century history at the same time. Raising a secular echo of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, the present work assembles a group of diners along a white-clothed, elongated table, with the young woman at the focal point of the composition in her daffodil-yellow top taking the part of the Christ figure. The remote gazes of the participants in the scene, disengaged as they are one from the other and looking inwards at themselves rather than out at the world, seem to hint at their brooding on the end of something: friendship or peace, perhaps, or the city as they know it. The Last Supper motif is here transposed to a decidedly urban setting, with a topographically-accurate rendition of the Potsdam cityscape laid out for the viewer behind the diners' heads, painted by Laserstein en plein air having taken the two-metre-wide board to the roof-garden by public transport.
Laserstein treats the human figures that breathe life into the composition with a palette and technical virtuosity that recall the Neue Sachlichkeit or 'New Objectivity' prevalent in the Weimar period amongst some of the most influential artists of the era, including such masters as Christian Schad. The group of five models used for the figures in Abend über Potsdam were drawn from Laserstein's close circle of friends. One of the sitters, Traute Rose, recalls how the human element of the composition took shape: 'Then the protracted labour began with the various models. My position had been defined on the far left by the balustrade, and so had my husband's, who had our dog at his feet. The central figure was initially a girl in a red jumper, but she couldn't keep it up for long and was replaced by the girl in the yellow shirt. [...] After a while the dog was replaced by an old fur because he obviously didn't like Ernst's feet' (T. Rose, quoted in Krausse, p. 164). The painting remained in Laserstein's possession for the rest of her life, its talismanic presence suggested by its inclusion in the self-portrait she painted in the 1950s, in which it appears behind her (fig. 1).
Born in Prussia in 1898, Laserstein studied painting under Erich Wolfsfeld at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and was, for the final two years of her tuition, his 'Atelier Meisterschülerin' (star pupil), an honour which brought with it her own studio at the Academy in which to paint. She went on to win the Academy's Gold Medal in 1925. In 1927, she left its walls for life as a struggling artist in inflation-hit Berlin. Her first solo show was held in that city at Fritz Gurlitt's famous gallery in 1930, and in 1937 she exhibited at the Paris World Fair. That same year she was offered an exhibition at the Galleri Modern in Stockholm. Because Laserstein was of Jewish background, she made the decision to stay on in Sweden to avoid the increasing threats and constrictions of life in Germany, and earned a living by teaching painting and taking on portrait commissions. Laserstein's mother died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp; her sister, Käte, survived the war in hiding in Berlin and later joined Lotte in Sweden. Laserstein spent her later life in Kalmar in southern Sweden and died there in 1993.
FIG. 1, Lotte Laserstein, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, Private Collection, United Kingdom
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