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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.

CONFERENCE PAPER: “Where Did It Come From? Deep Learning for Event Extraction in Art Provenance”, 10/06/2022 – 10/07/2022.

From October 67th, 2022, Lab member Fabio participated in the 10th annual “New Directions in Analyzing Text as Data” conference (TADA), which is a leading forum for research on the study of politics, society, and culture through computational analysis of documents. At this year’s conference, Fabio presented a talk titled “Where Did It Come From? Deep Learning for Event Extraction in Art Provenance”. 

In the talk, he explored the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence in the structuring of provenance events, where events are composed of parties, locations, dates, and methods of transfer. In particular, Fabio focused on the possibilities of applying deep learning methods, i.e. tools using artificial intelligence, for event extraction from provenance. From a computer science perspective, the extraction of knowledge from a provenance text relates to an event extraction problem in Natural Language Processing (NLP), an area of research where computer science, linguistics, and, more recently, artificial intelligence intersect. Using a museum dataset of over 11,000 provenances, Fabio showed how it is possible to solve NLP tasks by training artificial intelligence. 

CONFERENCE PAPER: “The Expert in the Loop: Developing a Provenance Linked Open Data Management Platform”, 07/25/2022 – 07/29/2022.

Following a hiatus in 2021, the international Digital Humanities Conference (DH2022)  took place again this year. The event, which ran from July 25th to 29th, 2022, was an opportunity to share research results and exchange knowledge among international research teams.

On behalf of the Provenance Lab, Fabio participated with a presentation entitled: “The Expert in the Loop: Developing a Provenance Linked Open Data Management Platform”. In the talk, Fabio presented for the first time the development of a ‘human-in-the-loop’ platform to extract, structure, and enrich provenance data from texts compiled by institutions. The ‘human-in-the-loop’ approach consists of providing a digital interface that allows a human (in our case, a provenance expert) to easily interact with artificial intelligence without any technical prerequisites. In this way, we can combine the quantitative benefits of automatic knowledge extraction via machine learning with the intellectual work of domain experts.

The abstract to the talk can be found in The Book of Abstracts of DH2022.

TEACHING: “Tracing Brandhorst: Re-Imagining a Collection” at Museum Brandhorst, Munich, July 2022.

From July 11th to 15th, 2022, Lynn Rother taught a course on tracing objects from the private collection of Anette and Udo Brandhorst, which now form part of the permanent collection of Museum Brandhorst, Munich. Comprised of thirteen undergraduate students from Leuphana University, the course took place for the most part at the museum itself and was accompanied by the museum’s curator, Giampaolo Bianconi.

Students were each assigned an artist and an artwork from the Brandhorst collection—ranging from Andy Warhol’s ‘Round Marilyn’ (1962) to Cy Twombly’s ‘Nini’s Painting’ (1971)—and asked to prepare object sheets detailing, among tombstone data, the collecting and exhibition history of the artwork. At the end of the course, they were then asked to deliver oral presentations contextualising the reception of the artwork at the time of its acquisition. Indeed, the course was aimed at trying to understand, first and foremost, the collectors and their decisions at the time. What moved the Brandhorsts to buy artworks from the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s and, later, from the offshoot movement known as “critical postmodernism”? Furthermore, how do we archive and catalogue such information today, as the museum prepares for the reinstallation of its permanent collection in 2023? How does a museum dedicated to contemporary art deal with its increasingly ageing collection? Such were the questions raised and discussed in Munich.

PROVENANCE LAB WORKSHOP: “Uncertainty and Subjectivity in Provenance Linked Open Data”, 06/29/2022 – 06/30/2022.

On June 29th and 30th, 2022, the Provenance Lab hosted a workshop on the role of subjectivity and uncertainty in provenance Linked Open Data. Researchers and practitioners engaged in modeling art history information through Linked Open Data were invited to participate in the event. Participants showcased real-world examples of the role of subjectivity and uncertainty in provenance records and discussed different approaches and solutions to addressing them.

How we structure the subjectivity and uncertainty of a statement in LOD is still very much an open question and challenge. This is the same for structuring provenance LOD. After all, the reconstruction of an artifact’s history is only ever achieved through the interpretation of historical sources and the formulation of hypotheses by scholars. Such hypotheses are subjective, however, and may contain degrees of uncertainty depending on the scholar’s confidence in them. It is thus crucial to translate subjectivity and uncertainty when structuring provenance in LOD, since false objectivity only prevents debate and multi-perspectivity. 

CONFERENCE PRESENTATION: “Probably Sold to Paalen, Possibly by Exchange”, 06/09/2022.

On June 9th and 10th, 2022, the University of Lausanne (UNIL) hosted the second edition of the Workshop on Computational Methods in the Humanities (COMHUM 2022). Fabio participated in the event with a presentation entitled “Probably Sold to Paalen, Possibly by Exchange: Vagueness, Incompleteness, Subjectivity, and Uncertainty in Digital Art Provenance”. Taking the example of the provenance of Picasso’s  ‘Head of a Woman’ (1927) now preserved at the MET, the talk focused on the challenges of, as well as modeling solutions for, VISU information (Vagueness, Incompleteness, Subjectivity, and Uncertainty). 

VISU information—from the Latin ‘de visu’ meaning “with your own eyes”—represents the effort and difficulty in reconstructing the provenance of a work of art. In digitizing and publishing art provenance as linked open data, Fabio argues, it is important that we include and model the complexity of VISU information. In so doing, we can avoid making historical records clear, complete, objective and certain, when they are simply not.

NEWSLETTER REPORT: “A New Approach to Provenance: The ‘Provenance Studies’ Program at Leuphana University Lüneburg”, 05/31/2022.

For the May 2022 newsletter of the Network of European Restitution Committees on Nazi-Looted Art, the Provenance Lab published a report on the outlook and activities of the ‘Provenance Studies’ program at Leuphana University Lüneburg.

In the report, the Lab observes that they are the first university research program producing Provenance LOD. “Such a transformation”, the report continues, “requires a shift in perspective: from provenance as a sequence of ownership periods to provenance as a sequence of events, which mark the beginning and end of consecutive ownership periods. That is, from an object-centered perspective to an event-centered approach.”

You can read the report in full here.

PANEL DISCUSSION: “Frenemies? – Provenance and Art Market Studies”, 02/17/2022.

On February 17th, 2022, Max chaired a panel discussion called “Frenemies? – Provenance and Art Market Studies”, hosted by the The International Art Market Studies Association (TIAMSA). Against the backdrop of digitalization of research and knowledge production, as well the increasing availability of art market information, the panel brought together three experts in provenance and art market research to discuss shared challenges: Executive Director of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc., Elizabeth Gorayeb, head of The Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance at the Getty Research Institute, Sandra van Ginhoven, and the director of the Provenance Lab, Lynn.

TEACHING: “Old Knowledge, New Techniques – Understanding Museum Data”, Winter Semester 2021/2022.

In the winter semester 2021/2022, Lynn and Fabio co-taught the seminar “Old Knowledge, New Techniques – Understanding Museum Data” as part of the Media Cultures module of the Digital Media Bachelor, a joint degree of Leuphana University and Hamburg Media School. The teaching proposes an experimental hybrid learning of provenance studies with digital knowledge representation.

“In the brave new electronic world, few bastions of the humanities have withstood the march of technology more tenaciously than the art museum.”

—Everett Elin, 1969

With the first Executive Director of the Museum Computer Network, Everett Elin’s, observation in mind, students were provided with theoretical and practical insights to critically analyze the current digital practices of museums in publishing art provenance online. On the one hand, the course presented the traditional methodology of provenance studies, providing literature and case studies. On the other, with continuous cross-disciplinary references, students learned the techniques and logic necessary to publish structured and machine-readable knowledge. These notions thus allowed students to practice what they had learned, experiencing the potential and the limits of the multidisciplinary approach. Working in groups, the students produced new and unique application scenarios of digital art provenance. Below you will find some examples of their work.

Fundamentally, the seminar was an opportunity to experiment on an educational level with what is already taking place at the Provenance Lab. It was motivated by the belief that academic training with a hybrid background is essential for providing institutions with adequate museum professionals who can meet digital challenges head-on.

AUTHORS: Nele Husen, Melanie Neuer, Hannah Prasuhn and Luise Pohlmann.

CONCEPT: “On a large screen in the museum there is a map of the world and a timeline, on which colourful dots represent different artworks. On Tablets or smartphone visitors can choose paintings, events and people they would like to learn more about.”

AUTHORS: Lelia van Hees, Isobel Hingston, Viktoria Dorothea Kamps and Nemanja Pulja.

CONCEPT: “Provenance data is displayed on a map paired with timestamps, making visible the space and time dimensions of a painting, as well as its possible network dimensions. This map is both accessible on the museum website and by way of a QR code in the museum itself .”

AUTHORS: Rebekka Skjørestad Halter, Marek Jakob Gollan, Charlotte Albert and Felizitas Klara Sophie Bader.

CONCEPT: “An interactive exhibition game in which school children go on a journey through time and space to track down a painting, collecting provenance data along the way. A trained educator guides them through the game, filling in any gaps and providing further context.”

TEACHING: “Collecting Women”, Winter Semester 2021/2022.

In the winter semester 2021/2022, Lynn and Max co-taught an undergraduate course on the role of women collectors, which also addressed the question of collecting, curating and displaying the works of female artists. The occasion for the course was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” While feminist art history has since had far reaching consequences in the field of art history, highlighting in particular the role and accomplishments of female artists, the course took the anniversary of this foundational text as an opportunity to expand the view on the role of women in the arts.

The course combined the fundamental insights of feminist art history with more recent approaches, themselves an outgrowth of the feminist turn, to look at ongoing structural oversights within the field of art history. The way art history continues to be written today perpetuates structural biases and exclusions, manifesting themselves in places as varied as wikipedia, or indeed, in museum databases. Therefore, the class took a historical approach to the variety of activities women in the arts were engaged in to draw out a much richer picture of female entanglements in the world of art, not only as muses or artists themselves, but also as actors in the art market and as collectors. As part of the course, the class visited the retrospective of the leading surrealist Toyen at the Hamburger Kunsthalle to analyse contemporary engagements with the historical biases.

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