Rediscovered ‘degenerate art’ goes on show in Vienna

The Art Newspaper 6 March 2014
By Martin Bailey

Portrait of a modern woman, presumed destroyed, surfaced at auction in 2012

Lotte Laserstein, Im Gasthaus (In the Tavern), 1927. Photo: © Walter Bayer, courtesy a private collection

A “degenerate” painting lost since the 1930s has been rediscovered and is now on show in Vienna. Lotte Laserstein’s Im Gasthaus (In the Tavern), 1927, is one of the surprises in the Belvedere’s exhibition on “Vienna-Berlin: the Art of Two Cities” (until 15 June). The picture shows a neue frau (modern woman), waiting for her beer and alone with her thoughts. It is difficult to understand why the Nazis regarded the picture as “degenerate”, but it may have been because the woman did not meet their image of femininity or simply because the artist was deemed to be three-quarters Jewish.

In the Tavern had been bought in 1928 by the city of Berlin. In 1937, the year that public collections were forced to deaccession works of Entartete Kunst, Laserstein went to Stockholm for the opening of her show. She never returned to Berlin, dying in Sweden in 1993. Laserstein regarded In the Tavernas one of her most important works, but all she had was a photograph, on the back of which she inscribed “vermutlich zerstört” (presumed destroyed).

The painting eventually surfaced in Munich’s Ruef auction, unrecognised and estimated at €900. Several bidders spotted what it was, and it sold on 28 June 2012 for €110,000. It was bought by its present owner, who is lending it anonymously to the Vienna-Berlin show (it was also shown at the exhibition’s earlier presentation at the Berlinische Galerie).

In the Tavern still has the inventory number 14607 on the back, which someone unsuccessfully attempted to erase. This corresponds with the number given to the picture by Nazi officials in their list of 16,558 works deaccessioned by German museums in 1937-38. The inventory shows that it was acquired by Bernhard Böhmer, one of the four main dealers who handled Entartete Kunst. Further investigations have revealed that in 1956 it was owned by his son, Peter Böhmer.

Bernhard Böhmer and his wife Hella committed suicide on 3 May 1945, as Soviet troops entered Berlin. They almost killed their 12-year-old son Peter, but he survived, living until 2007.

Now that In the Tavern has surfaced, the Berlinische Galerie curator Ralf Burmeister would love to reacquire the painting. But even if the owner is willing to sell, it would probably involve paying the market value, and fundraising would be a challenge.
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