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.

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.

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.”

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”.

NEWS STORY: “Complete Clarification – Lynn Rother Teaches the New Subject of Provenance Studies in Lüneburg”, 03/01/2020.

Upon Lynn‘s appointment to the Lichtenberg-Professorship at Lüneburg, the German art magazine Art ran a two-page interview with her in their March issue of 2020. Under the title “Complete Clarification”, Lynn argued:

“In the last two decades in particular, an extraordinarily large amount of provenance data has been generated on individual objects, but it has not yet been analysed across museums and collections. When it comes to thousands of works with tens of thousands of changes in ownership, this may be an almost impossible task for a human being, but not for a computer. This is where methods from data science come in.”

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