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Berlin to London: The Wiener Library’s lost photographs of Gerty Simon 3

a black and white photo of a young woman with bangs and black hair

Lotte Lenya (1898-1985), London, c. 1935. Singer and actress © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections

The Wiener Library’s summer 2019 exhibition displays the remarkable work of German-Jewish photographer Gerty Simon, and features many of her original prints from the 1920s and 1930s

When Gertrude (Gerty) Simon fled the Nazi regime in 1933 with her son Bernard and settled in Britain she left behind a husband and a career as prolific as it was successful.

The Berlin photographer, who died in 1970, blossomed as a key artist of the Weimar era and featured in a number of exhibitions of the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the major 1929 overview of contemporary photography, Fotografie der Gegenwart.

Looking at the roster of her sitters, it’s evident Simon had connections with a thriving and innovative creative scene of actors, writers, composers, dancers and artists, as well as with the world of politics. She photographed the likes of singer and actress Lotte Lenya, the artist Käthe Kollwitz and Albert Einstein.

But in common with many of the people she photographed, the terrible tide of 1930s politics meant that Simon, a German Jewish photographer, could have no place in Hitler’s Third Reich.

a photo of Einstein with his shock of grey hair and moustache

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Berlin, c. 1929 © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections

a a head and shoulders portrait of a man with short curly hair casting a theatrical shadow behind him

Alexander Iolas (1907-1987), c. 1925-1933. Ballet dancer, later a gallerist © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections.

She left for London in 1933 with Bernard, leaving behind her husband Wilhelm who was not able to get out of Berlin for another five years – after the Nazi’s infamous anti-Jewish pogrom, Kristallnacht.

Interestingly, one of the sitters Simon photographed was theatre critic Alfred Kerr together with his young daughter Judith, who herself would go on to chronicle the Kerr family’s experience of Nazi Germany and their exile and escape to London in a series a books, eventually establishing a career as a successful children’s author.

Luckily, Simon also made good her escape and settled in London where she was able to re-establish a photography studio in Chelsea. From here she quickly recreated her reputation for innovative portrait photography and began working in the most influential circles of London society.

Between 1934 and 1937 she photographed, amongst many others, Sir Kenneth Clark, Peggy Ashcroft and Aneurin Bevan. Her work also featured in a number of exhibitions, including London Personalities held at the Storran Gallery in Kensington in 1934. The Sunday Times described her at this time as the “most brilliant and original of Berlin photographers”.

a photo of a little girl in side profile

Judith Kerr aged six, Berlin, c. 1929. Later a children’s writer and illustrator © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections

a studio portrait of a woman with blonde hair

Oriel Ross (1907-1994), London, c. 1934-1935. Actress © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections

However, her work has since faded from the public’s consciousness and the Wiener Library was gifted Gerty Simon’s archive in 2016. Since then the Library has been working to try and identify many of the sitters she photographed in 1920s and early 1930s Germany. Approximately 80 figures in the 300-strong collection feature unknown figures from the rich cultural milieu of Berlin’s decadent, pre-Nazi decade.

A #FindingGerty campaign via their Flickr page led to the identification of Russian painter Kolja Wassilieff, German artist Elfrieda Thum and the Greek dancer and later gallerist and art collector Alexander Iolas.

For The Wiener Library – the world’s oldest collector of material on the Nazi era – the quality of the photographs and significance of many of Gerty Simon’s sitters, as well as her story of displacement from Germany and re-establishment in Britain, means that this is a particularly compelling collection and story.

“The project and exhibition brings into focus, for the first time in eighty years, the work of this powerful and innovative photographic artist, particularly as Gerty Simon photographed so many important cultural figures from the lost world of Weimar Berlin,” says a Library spokesperson.

“We hope that through this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue focusing on her life and work, Gerty Simon will once again receive the recognition she deserves.”

a studio photo of a woman with angular features and stylish short cropped hair holding a cigarette

Renée Sintenis (1888-1965), Berlin, c. 1929-1932. Sculptor and medallist © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections.

a black and white photo of a woman with short cropped curly hair

Portrait of Gerty Simon. Date unknown. © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Library Collections.

The exhibition is part of Insiders/Outsiders, a nationwide arts festival taking place from March 2019 to March 2020 to celebrate refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

Berlin/London: The Lost Photographs of Gerty Simon is at the Wiener Library, London from May 30 2019 to October 15 2019.


The Wiener Holocaust Library

London, Greater London

The Wiener Holocaust Library is one of the world's leading and most extensive archives on the Holocaust and Nazi era. The Library's unique collection of over one million items includes published and unpublished works, press cuttings, photographs and eyewitness testimony. It provides a resource to oppose antisemitism and other forms…

3 comments on “Berlin to London: The Wiener Library’s lost photographs of Gerty Simon

  1. Joe Schmid on

    Thank you very much for presenting this article about this
    “loosing freedom” in Europe of the 30ties in you’r Museums Crush story!
    Well done!

  2. Diane Straub on

    Amazing photos! It is so important to tell the stories of those that fled the worst kind of oppression and evil and still left such an unforgettable legacy of art and beauty..


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