After leaving her native Swabia to attend school in Bremen, the young artist Marlis Glaser grew engaged in social and political issues while painting the portraits of union workers, communists and social democrats. Then, in 1984, at the age of 32, she produced the portrait of a woman named Hannah Erdmann, a Jew from Breslau who had survived Theresienstadt and whose story of survival fascinated Glaser. As she painted her subject and learned more about Erdmann’s life, Glaser realized that she needed to go deeper: “I started wanting to know about the Jewish people.”
Since painting the image that lit a fire in her three decades ago, Glaser has dedicated years of artistic craft and literally hundreds of works of art to the preservation and commemoration of Jews who survived the Holocaust, drawing cultural attention to the importance of Jewish heritage in pre-War Germany. Through a combination of drawing, sculpture and painting, Glaser has produced 22 exhibitions across Germany, France and Israel. She has also published several widely read catalogues and books, including Neue Arbeiten 2008-2012: Bilder über Menschen und Bücher, Baueme und Früchte (Recent Works, 2008-2012: Pictures About People and Books, Trees and Fruits).
In addition to giving numerous tours and presentations in which Glaser has discussed her work, her paintings of Jewish survivors and their family members hang in synagogues, museums, churches and art spaces across Germany—including galleries in Dusseldorf, Tubingen, Schorndorf, Ravensburg, Mochental Castle, and in her hometown Attenweiler, close to Ulm in Baden-Württemberg.
Glaser’s partly figurative, partly expressionist works in bold colors, which incorporate text, symbols, flowers and trees, are known for capturing the strength of character and, in many cases, the optimism of her subjects. For Glaser, tears of sadness and tears of joy belong to her art as well as her life. “With my project theme ‘Abraham Planted a Tamarisk Tree’ I pick up this biblical quote and express the aspect of continuity from Abraham until today. This spiritual and ethical tradition in Judaism starts with Abraham and goes until today.” The Abraham Project is perhaps Glaser’s best-known work, started in 2005. One series includes some 200 paintings of 70 individuals, combining interviews and portraits of German-Jewish immigrants to Israel and the U.S. to depict the life stories of dozens of individuals forced to flee Germany to escape the Holocaust.
Based on her many trips to Israel, and inspired by Judaism and what she has learned about Jewish culture, Glaser combines images of nature as well as religious symbols – such as a menorah, a Seder plate, a wedding dress, a shofar, a prayer book – into the portraits of her subjects to connect them with their personal stories. Glaser includes biographical, religious and historical details in her work, she says, because “in art, everything should have a meaning. I was interested in their stories: how did they survive, how many family members did they lose? I wanted to interpret these people with four symbols: portrait, tree motif, name (identity) and object (from their personal life).”
Through her creative process portraying elderly Jews, their descendants and the families’ legacies of surviving the Holocaust, Glaser has become linked to Judaism in a unique way— and brought her sons into the process as well. She not only celebrates weekly Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, but both of her non-Jewish sons—Samuel, 22, who studies art in Munich, and Joshua, 18, who currently engages in woodworking—had symbolic bar mitzvahs. Glaser knows Hebrew phrases and prayers as well as the alphabet, and she enjoys baking challah bread with her children. “I want to know the traditions of Jewish culture and religion so that I know what I have lost,” she says.
Glaser gives school lectures and leads workshops to teach students about Germany’s Jewish past. She has also designed flyers and used her paintings in exhibitions commemorating the European Jewish Day of Culture. “It’s a generation that isn’t here—which should be here, which is absent,” says Glaser. “That’s why I went 12 years ago with my boys to Israel. I wanted them to meet and see these people who once came from Germany and I wanted to meet the generation of my youth—the children of these survivors.”
Amos Fröhlich, of Shavei Zion in Israel, says Glaser “internalized the Holocaust and decided to dedicate all her energies to the commemoration of the fate of the persecuted Jews who were forced to flee Germany—and to the education of young people in Germany today for the sake of future generations.” And describing the art itself, Judith Temime, also from Shavei Zion, says Glaser’s “observations are at once sober and tender, and the riotous colors and somber shadows she uses are as telling as words…[Her] engagement with the German-Jewish narrative and her faithful commitment to ‘remembrance and hope’ have come together to produce a unique and wonderful body of work.”
During a 10-year period starting early last decade, Glaser says her work “interpreted” and was inspired by the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, who was born in Wuppertal in 1869 and died in Jerusalem in 1945. Glaser herself grew up hearing stories that her great aunt and uncle told about Jews who had lived in Ulm before the war. Her grandmother—who was introduced to her grandfather by a Jewish cattle dealer—helped hungry Jewish families survive the war by sending Glaser’s mother, than a 13-year-old girl, to deliver eggs and other food supplies to Jews in the neighboring village of Laupheim.
Glaser says her Jewish-inspired artwork has a dual purpose – to keep alive the memory of Holocaust survivors, and to, commemorate the Jews whom the Nazis murdered. Her other socio-political works include wall installations depicting stories from modern labor movements, the women’s 20th century liberation movement, women of the French Revolution, and women in the WWII resistance. Glaser, whose work has been written about extensively in both the German and Israeli press, produced an especially celebrated exhibit in 2008 on the anniversary of the founding of Israel and the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
For Glaser, perhaps as important as anything is her desire, through art, to help defeat prejudice and force people today, and in the future, to ask: “How we can reduce anti-Jewish stereotypes and resentment in ourselves?”
Nominated by: Chava & Motke Berkovicz, Shavei Zion, Israel; Aron Berlinger, New York, NY, USA; Elma Erlanger, Shave Zion, Israel; Amos Fröhlich, Shavei Zion, Israel; Esti Geva, Kiryat Tivon, Israel; Ivo Gönner, Ulm, Germany; Dina Grinspan, Mevasseret Zion, Israel; Rabbi Yehoshua Helman, Nayariyya, Israel; Raya Hoffmann, Nofit, Israel; Yehudith Kahn, Asseret, Israel; Silvester Lechner, Elchingen, Germany; Yitzhak Steiner, Re’ut, Israel; Judith Temime, Shavei Zion, Israel; Sibylle Tiedemann, Berlin, Germany