A life less ordinary
The work of Gerty Simon, a photographer of a veritable who’s who of Weimar Germany, is on display for the first time in 80 years at the Wiener Library
Article by Andy Barnham
Following a donation in 2016 of 350 original prints, this summer’s exhibition at the Wiener Library showcases the work of German Jewish photographer Gerty Simon. A photographer in Weimar Germany the exhibition follows Gerty’s remarkable life from Berlin to London accompanied by original documents and her portraits.
Starting with editorial photography in 1922, by the end of the decade Gerty was concentrating on portraits and the exhibition shows many of the political and artistic subjects that sat for Gerty. Personalities include singer Lotte Lenya, who is best remembered for performances of the songs by her husband Kurt Weill, the painter Max Lieberman, scientist Albert Einstein, French politician Andre Tardieu who later became the French Prime Minister on three occasions and German politician Carl Severing. There is a then six year old writer Judith Kerr, who went on to write and illustrate the Mog series and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Judith is shown next to her father, a theatre critic who found it hard to integrate into U.K. when he and his family fled Germany due to his lack of English.
A lot of Gerty’s subjects were politically left leaning and persecuted by the Weimar Republic’s successor, Nazi Germany. Those that went into exile included the whole of Gerty’s son’s school which was relocated en masse to Kent in the U.K. in the autumn of 1933 by headmaster Anna Essinger. Coming to the U.K. herself in 1933, due to feeling exposed and potentially targeted Gerty left her husband behind. From Alsace, Wilhelm Meno Simon was a World War I veteran and awarded the Iron Cross and under the Nazis been demoted from his position as judge but kept on as a notary for administration purposes. It wasn’t until 1939 that he left Germany and he and Gerty were reunited.
Within a year of arriving in the U.K., Gerty was exhibited in Chelsea with another London exhibition a year later. Her British subjects were a mix of refugees, actors and politicians including Aneurin Bevan and Lord Balniel and actresses Peggy Ashcroft and Constance Cummings.
Stopping photography in 1937, Gerty spent the war years in the U.K., seeing her son, Bernard, arrested sent and then subsequently interned in Australia. Following release and acceptance into the Pioneer Corps, Bernard returned to the U.K. in 1942, volunteering to work in the munitions industry which allowed him to stay in the country and care for his parents. Gerty herself became a British National and records show she tried to claim for restitution against the German government in 1954. By the time she died in 1970 her and her work had fallen into obscurity.
The work on display at the Wiener Library is the first time the portraits have been seen in 80 years. In addition to the images on show are these images on Flickr of unknown subjects which the Library is hoping to identify.
Berlin/London: The Lost Photographs of Gerty Simon will be exhibited at The Wiener Library from 30 May–15 October 2019, entry is free.