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: “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.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search