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Weimar Berlin’s unsung female photographer

The portraits of little-known photographer Gerty Simon shed a twinkling light on the stars of Weimar Berlin and 1930s London.

Image for Weimar Berlin's unsung female photographer

Gerty Simon, Self-portrait, ca 1934. Photo: The Bernard Simon Collection, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

As the catchiest tunes of Weimar Berlin return to the stage in Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, the leading lights of the original play and the period are currently on show at Liebermann-Villa.

The exhibition ‘Gerty Simon. Berlin/London’ presents the little-known German photographer to a Berlin audience for the first time in almost 90 years, introducing the portraits she took while in exile in London.

For decades, these treasures lay forgotten in England – until her son died in 2015 and his partner discovered them. Among more than 350 prints are portraits of Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz and Lotte Lenya, star of the original The Threepenny Opera production that won the praise of theatre critic Alfred Kerr. He, too, is captured alongside his daughter Judith, author of beloved children’s book The Tiger Who Came To Tea

The haul also contained snapshots of the great and the good of 1930s Britain: art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, artist Paul Nash and Labour politician Aneurin Bevan to name but a few. The intimate images of Lotte Lenya, seen in many books, are particularly striking and reveal a serious side to the actress. At the time, Simon’s work was published in numerous newspapers and admired at exhibitions in Berlin, Paris and London.

Despite becoming a successful photographer, there are no records of where she picked up the craft. Born Gertrude Cohn into a well-to-do Jewish family in Bremen in 1887, she moved to Berlin after her marriage to lawyer Wilhelm Simon and opened a portrait studio off Kurfürstendamm in the 1920s. She was in good company: it was a neighbourhood in which many of her female colleagues also had their studios, including Lotte Jacobi and the fashion photographer Yva.

Image for Weimar Berlin's unsung female photographer

English actress Peggy Ashcroft photographed by Gerty Simon, ca 1934, Photo: Gerty Simon, The Bernard Simon Collection, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

By 1933, Gerty Simon was forced into exile: “Under the Nazi regime I found myself, as a Jew, in particular danger. As a photographer I had taken numerous photographs of Social Democratic and anti-fascist personalities and exhibited them in public.” She carefully prepared her move to London, translating her reviews into English to open doors and networking with ease. In Chelsea she re-established herself with a new studio, which soon saw an array of artists, politicians and members of high society passing through its door. Besides integrating herself into British society, she also kept in touch with fellow émigrés.

In 1936, at the age of 48, Gerty Simon abruptly stopped taking pictures. Her reason remains one of the many mysteries surrounding her life. In 1947 she took British citizenship and later moved out of London to Surbiton, where she died in 1970.

Lucy Wasensteiner, Director of the Liebermann-Villa, first came across Gerty Simon’s work as part of a collaboration with the Wiener Holocaust Library in London a few years ago. The library was the fortunate recipient of Simon’s breathtaking collection and shared a fraction of it with the world in 2019. Now, finally, a larger selection of her portraits are visible at Liebermann-Villa – a fitting location due to the artist’s personal connection to Max Liebermann, himself one of her subjects.

Catch a glimpse of her and her portraits while you can – not everybody moved in such illustrious circles.

Gerty Simon. Berlin/London, through October 4, Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee