CATALOGUE ESSAY: “‘Oh, You are a scientist!’ Elsa Glaser and Art History”

Photograph of a painting by Edvard Munch of Elsa Glaser. The painting shows a female figure seated on a yellow chair. She is wearing a purple dress with orange shoulder pats. The floor is grey. The wall in the background is painted in large patches of green color of varying tone. The painting is framed by a dark brown frame.

For the catalogue of the exhibition “The Collector Curt Glaser: From Champion of Modernism to Refugee”, running at Kunstmuseum Basel from Oct 22, 2022 to Feb 2, 2023, Lynn Rother and Max Koss contributed an essay on Elsa Glaser, Curt’s first wife, life companion, and intellectual sparring partner. 

For the text, they revisited and brought together existing accounts of Elsa’s life and uncovered new and little-known archival materials, shedding new light on the life facts as well as on Elsa’s character and personality, which was, by all accounts of the people who met her, an extraordinary one. With its focus on Elsa, the essay addresses the ghostly presence, if not the outright erasure of her contribution to what the text proposes was a collaborative project of writing, practising, and living art history of both Curt and Elsa Glaser. 

Elsa Kolker was born in Breslau (now Wrocław) on May 7, 1878, into a wealthy Jewish family of entrepreneurs and industrialists. Her mother was Renate “Natalie” Kolker (1852-1921), born Glaser, and her father was Hugo Kolker (1845-1915), who was also an art collector and would later rely on Elsa and her husband to help build his collection of modern art. In 1903, at the age of 25, Elsa married her first cousin Curt Glaser in Breslau. The marriage was childless. Curt, who had already trained to be a medical doctor, pivoted to art history under the influence of Elsa and earned his doctorate in 1907 under the supervision of Heinrich Wölfflin. 

Elsa and Curt were, for a while, financially secure through Elsa’s family. Before WWI, they were able to travel widely, as far as Japan, and met artists and intellectuals. Their friendship with Edvard Munch developed during this time, and they became leading collectors of his art in Germany. Elsa was portrayed by the Norwegian in two large oil paintings, and Henri Matisse made an exquisite graphite drawing of her, showing her stylish elegance as well as her intellectual acuity. 

Meanwhile, Curt was a prolific writer and began his slow rise in the art bureaucracy of Berlin, eventually rising to become director of Berlin’s art library in 1924. In the second half of the 1920s, Elsa became known as the hostess of the Monday evening salons, held in the representative apartment of the Glasers, with their collection on display. While her health was already on the decline—she had always been hard of hearing—she continued to dazzle and entertain the guests, including writers, intellectuals, artists, museum professionals and others from Berlin’s vibrant cultural life. 

Elsa, who died of an unspecified ailment in 1932 at the age of 54, left behind a legacy that is difficult to measure, not least because her intellectual contributions to the work of her husband cannot be clearly identified. One question for future researchers to investigate, for example, would be whether Elsa may have written any number of texts in magazines and periodicals usually attributed to her husband, a project that could benefit from computer-assisted textual and stylistic analysis.

Photograph of two publications. They are the English and German version of a catalogue for the exhibition "The Collector Curt Glaser. From Champion of Modernism to Refugee" at the Kunstmuseum Basel. One cover shows a painting of Elsa Glaser by Edvard Munch. The other cover shows a painting by Max Beckmann of Curt Glaser.

PUBLICATION: “Provenance Research in Museums: The Long Run”, 12/03/2020.

On December 3rd, 2020, Arthur Tompkins’ released his reference handbook ‘Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems‘ co-published with Lund Humphries, London, and the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). Together with Iris Schmeisser, Lynn co-authored an article in the handbook called “Provenance Research in Museums: The Long Run”.

“To illustrate the shift from ‘traditional’ art-historical to interdisciplinary Nazi-era provenance research and its challenges”, the article centres upon the complex history of a Swiss landscape painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which, over the course of many years, and multiple re-visits to its provenance, changed both names and date. In the conclusion to their article, Lynn and Iris thus argue that provenance research in museums is not only “case by case”, but also “as much about history as it is about historicity”.

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