LONDON — A London museum has begun a search to uncover the identities of people featured in pictures taken by a German-Jewish photographer who fled to the city 85 years ago.
The exhibition will mark the first time in eight decades that the work of this pioneering photographer has been brought to public attention.
Before she left Berlin in 1933, Simon was already a well-established and prolific photographer. Her work was repeatedly presented in exhibitions in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the 1929 “Fotograhie der Gegenwart” exhibition.
Simon photographed a wide range of Weimar Berlin’s artists, politicians, and cultural figures, such as Albert Einstein; the artist Kätte Kollwitz; the painter and printmaker Max Liebermann; the composer Kurt Weill; and the essayist and theater critic Alfred Kerr. Kerr’s daughter, Judith, whom Simon also captured, subsequently became one of Britain’s best-loved and most successful author of children’s books.
Some of Simon’s subjects, such as Weill’s wife, the singer and actress Lotte Lenya, became close family friends. Like Simon, many of them – Jews such as Weill, and left-leaning artists such as Lenya – were also forced to leave Germany.
After arriving in London, Simon quickly reestablished a studio in the city’s western neighborhood of Chelsea.
“Her reputation will have preceded her to London and it is most likely she will have had contacts and advocates here,” says Wiener’s photo archivist Elise Bath.
Simon’s British subjects included the renowned art historian and broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark; the Oscar-winning actor Dame Peggy Ashcroft; and Aneurin Bevan, the post-war Labour Cabinet minister who remains a revered figure today for founding Britain’s National Health Service. Simon’s work featured in a number of exhibitions in London, including one entitled “London Personalities” held at the Storran Gallery in Kensington in 1934.
Simon traveled to London with her son, Bernard, but her husband, Wilhelm, was not able to get out of Berlin until after Kristallnacht five years later. Simon’s move to Britain in 1933 was, in part, precipitated by the fact that Bernard was a pupil at the Herrlingen school of German-Jewish educator, Anna Essinger.
Strongly influenced by the attitudes of the Quakers whom Essinger had encountered in the United States during her youth, the school instantly met the disapproval of the Nazis. With the permission of their parents, Essinger moved the school and its 66 mainly Jewish pupils – including Bernard – to Britain in September 1933 under the guise of a summer vacation.
In its new home in a 17th century manor house in the Kent village of Otterden in southern England, New Herrlingen, or Bunce Court as it was more commonly known, flourished.
Bernard and his father were both interned as part of the round-up of “enemy aliens” in June 1940, when a German invasion of Britain appeared imminent. Wilhelm was swiftly released but Bernard found himself part of the infamous voyage of the Dunera – when 2,000 German refugees, many of them Jewish, were transported in appalling conditions on a 57-day crossing to Australia. Bernard was eventually able to return to the UK. He later forged a career working for Time Life magazine.
Simon died in 1970. After Bernard’s death, his partner, Joseph Brand, donated his papers and archives – including about 330 of Simon’s portraits and a small number of family photographs – to Wiener in 2016.
“The power and significance of the collection was immediately apparent,” says Bath.
“This collection of photographs is remarkable; to see all of the images together is to get an almost overwhelming sense of Gerty’s artistry and productivity. While the drama, intention, and clarity of the images themselves is apparent, Gerty’s personality seems to shine through as well.
“Her professional and creative essence is obvious: she is rather an inspirational figure not only in the fact of her professional independence, but also because her creativity and the innovative style she is working to develop,” Bath says.
The library has spent the last two years cataloguing the images, digitizing them, and carrying out conservation work. It recently commenced a social media effort to identify unknown individuals in about 80 images. It is all part of the preparation for the opening of an exhibition – “London/Berlin: The Lost Photographs of Gerty Simon,” curated by Dr. Barbara Warnock and due to open in June 2019.
The unidentified images have been uploaded onto Flickr for members of the public to offer their suggestions on who the subjects might be. The library is encouraging the use of the hashtag #FindingGerty to increase awareness of its search.
Wiener’s staff have labeled the images with whatever detail they already have about individual pictures. Some of it comes from notes on the back of them which they believe were made by Simon. Such fragments of information – for instance “Russian sculptor” – is combined with an approximate date determined by whether the portrait was taken in Berlin or London.
Bath believes that the photographs were taken for a number of reasons. Some seem to be publicity shots, others are commissions for private individuals.
“What strikes me is the artistry of these images,” she notes. “Gerty was so clearly an artist who was carrying out incredibly creative, quite experimental work, probably in part for her own enjoyment and artistic development.”
It is likely that the identities of some will never be revealed. A small number of images were, for instance, taken at a glass factory in the east German city of Jena and feature workers from the factory.
The library is, however, more optimistic that it will be able to uncover the identities of the sitters in the portrait studio images. “The photographs have a real power to them which seems to capture people’s imaginations,” says Bath.
It has already had some early successes. A researcher in Austria, for instance, has helped solve the mystery of the identities of a mother and daughter photographed in Berlin in the late 1920s. They were revealed to be Ella af Wirsén, the wife of Swedish diplomat and writer Einar af Wirsén, and their daughter Ulla. Af Wirsén served as Sweden’s envoy to Berlin from 1925 to 1937, and also had postings in Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy.
Alexander Iolas, a Greek ballet dancer who came to study in Berlin but fled Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power, has also been identified. He later became a prominent US and European art collector and gallery owner and has been dubbed “the man who discovered Warhol.”
“For me,” says Bath, “the Berlin images are particularly powerful, reflecting as they do the rich cultural milieu of the city at the time; its dynamism and breadth.
“It is, however, inevitable that your reaction to these images is affected by the knowledge of what was to come. While Gerty was able to leave Nazi Germany and build a new and successful life for herself in the UK, so many were not,” she adds.
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