Gerty (Gertrud) Simon (1887-1970) was a German-Jewish photographer renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for her portraits of important political and artistic figures in Weimar Berlin and interwar London.
In the 1930s, as a refugee from Nazism in Britain, Simon rapidly re-established her studio. She was soon photographing notable personalities from British public and cultural life to great acclaim.
In 1934, Gerty Simon was described as the ‘most brilliant and original of Berlin photographers’. But since Simon stopped taking professional photographs in the late 1930s, her career has been forgotten.
In 2016, The Wiener Holocaust Library received a large number of Gerty Simon’s original prints of portraits taken in Berlin and London from the estate of her son Bernard (Bernd), along with documents relating to her life and work. In 2019, The Wiener Holocaust Library staged an exhibition on Gerty Simon’s life and work featuring many of her works, including 18 original prints. In 2021, a version of the exhibition will be shown at Villa Liebermann, where, for the first time in 80 years, the work of this pioneering photographer will be brought to public attention in Berlin.
All photographs by Gerty Simon, unless otherwise stated.
© The Bernard Simon Estate, unless otherwise stated. All items: The Bernard Simon Collection, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
The original exhibition was part of Insiders/Outsiders, a nationwide arts festival celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their impact on British culture. The festival took place throughout 2019, the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.
A German Life
Gerty Simon (née Cohn) was born into an upper-middle class German-Jewish family in Bremen. Few details of her early years and education are known. In 1919, she married Wilhelm Meno Simon (1885-1966) a lawyer, judge and First World War veteran from Alsace. Around this time, Wilhelm Simon was appointed to a German government commission dealing with aspects of the post-war settlement between Germany and France.
Gerty and Wilhelm Simon moved to Berlin in the early 1920s and established a home in a fashionable quarter of Charlottenburg in Berlin, just off Kurfürstendamm. The area was at the centre of the city’s experimental creative life. In 1921, Gerty and Wilhelm’s son, Bernd (later Bernard) was born.
By 1922, Gerty Simon had embarked upon a career as a photographer and obtained her first commission for a magazine. Through the 1920s, she developed connections with many leading Weimar-era cultural figures, such as actress and singer Lotte Lenya, composer Kurt Weill, and gallerist Alfred Flechtheim.
By the late 1920s, Simon had established a national reputation in Germany as a photographer, captured a wide range of prominent sitters, and participated in two influential international photography exhibitions.
Spirit of Berlin
Gerty Simon first built her reputation through commissions for magazines, and then in the late 1920s was involved in a number of prestigious touring exhibitions that reflected the modern cultural developments of Weimar Germany.
Simon also held solo shows that were widely covered in the press. In 1928, she displayed some of her portraits at her studio in Charlottenburg, and in 1929, she staged an exhibition of photographs of prominent personalities from Berlin and Paris.
The Weimar-era in Berlin (1919-1933) saw a flourishing of cultural experimentation alongside the existence of a more liberal and tolerant atmosphere with respect to sexuality and gender. New movements in the arts included the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, expressionism and the Bauhaus.
“Gerty Simon never panders to beauty in her photographs, never falsifies by retouching”
In 1929, Gerty Simon was one of the exhibitors at a major touring exhibition, Fotografie der Gegenwart (Contemporary Photography), which showcased the work of the leading German photographers of the day. The exhibition has often been remembered for the striking design of its pamphlet, created by Walter Drexel for the Magdeburg leg of the show (see image bottom right). In 1930, Gerty Simon’s work also featured in a version of the celebrated Film and Foto exhibition, a show that toured Europe.
“In portraiture…everything depends on capturing the essence of a person…feeling is everything”
In October 1929, Simon staged a major solo show, Geistiges Berlin – geistiges Paris, at the Marta Görtel Gallery in Passauerstrasse in Berlin. The title can be translated as ‘Spirit of Berlin – Spirit of Paris’ or ‘Intellectual Berlin – Intellectual Paris’ (bottom left). The exhibition featured around one hundred of Simon’s portraits of prominent thinkers, writers, politicians, artists and actors from Berlin and Paris: individuals representing the ‘spirit’ of the two metropolises of continental Europe.
View more of Gerty Simon’s Berlin portraits here.
Gerty Simon’s milieu and career in Berlin were largely destroyed by the economic and political crises that Germany experienced in the early 1930s. Following the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Simon and her son became some of the earliest refugees from Nazism. Bernard Simon came to Britain with his boarding school, which was moved to Kent in autumn 1933 by the headteacher, Anna Essinger, because of her opposition to Nazi policies.
The relocation of the school determined the timing of Gerty Simon’s departure, but the major factor causing her to leave was the Nazis’ persecution of their political opponents and Jews. She wrote later that:
“Under the Nazi regime I found myself as a Jew in particular danger, because as a photographer, I had taken numerous photographs of Social Democratic and anti-fascist personalities and exhibited them in public.”
Simon left her studio, her home and her husband to escape persecution. The left-wing politicians she had photographed faced immediate persecution by the Nazi regime. Many of the cultural figures she portrayed went into exile and their work was attacked.
“Mrs. Gerty Simon, most brilliant and original of Berlin photographers made her London debut last week.”
The Sunday Times
“Gerty Simon…says that when sitters first see themselves as her camera portrays them, they either want to kiss her or kill her!”
On arrival in Britain, Gerty Simon set up a home and studio in Chelsea and established a position in London’s cultural scene with remarkable rapidity. Simon soon had as clients and sitters an array of significant figures from political, artistic and social circles. Within two years of her arrival in Britain, she staged two exhibitions which were widely covered in the press.
Just over a year after her flight from Germany, Gerty Simon held an exhibition at the Storran Gallery in Chelsea entitled London Personalities. The opening of the show on 13 November 1934 was covered by The Sunday Times, The Star and the Daily Sketch, amongst other newspapers.
In 1935, an exhibition of Simon’s Camera Portraits was held at the Camera Club near the Strand. It was curated by a fellow refugee from Nazism, Alfred Flechtheim, and opened by Sir John Lavery RA. The Evening Standard, Daily Sketch and Daily Telegraph reported on the show.
However, Gerty Simon appears to have stopped working as a portrait photographer around 1938.
Gerty Simon’s husband, Wilhelm, fled to Britain from Germany following the massive orchestrated violent attacks on Jewish people, communities and property during Kristallnacht on 9-10 November 1938. Wilhelm and his son Bernard were interned by British authorities as ‘enemy aliens’ in 1940 and 1941 (find out more here.) Gerty and Wilhelm Simon later settled in Wimbledon and then Surbiton.
View more of Gerty Simon’s London portraits here.
Tatjana Barbakoff (1899-1944), also known as Celly Waldmann, was a ballet and Chinese dancer. Born in the Russian Empire, but resident in Germany from after the First World War, she was of Russian-Jewish and Chinese origin.
Barbakoff was in France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. She was interned for a time at this point. In 1942-1944, Barbakoff hid in the Pyrenees and then the Côte D’Azur, where she was captured by the Gestapo. Barbakoff was deported to Drancy internment camp and then transported to Auschwitz where she was murdered on 6 February 1944.
Berlin/London: The Lost Photographs of Gerty Simon
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition