This month we have the great pleasure of interviewing Marlis Glaser. Behind this interview hides a story full of art, creativity and perseverance. Marlis coordinates the European Days of Jewish Culture in the village of Attenweiler, Germany, with a very interesting personal project. She is a painter with a very interesting career, she has exhibited in Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, among others. In her works, the Jewish sphere is very present, where she reflects on the contemporary frame, biblical themes or the festivities of the Jewish calendar.
Marlis has renovated an old factory in Attenweiler to turn it into a center of artistic creation, studios, and an exhibition room, which is used exclusively for the EDJC. For every EDJC, Marlis organizes not only exhibits artistic works, but also proposes conferences, concerts... An example to follow!
Well, for the motto 'Diaspora': I invited as main speaker a Rabbi who has experience with living in Israel and in the Diaspora, in Europe. It was Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, currently in St. Gallen/ Switzerland.
The other aspect was the question, if Jerusalem/Israel is the place of Non-'Tfutzot'/Diaspora, how can I visualize that? So my idea was to ask a friend and colleague, Ruth Schreiber from Jerusalem, to take photos of many street names from Jerusalem, streets that are named after historical and biblical individuals, famous and wise Rabbis and other prominent persons to show in a very concrete way this long and unique tradition (Rachel Imenu, Dan Street, Ruth Street, Issachar Street, Hebron Road...)
To express the connection between Israel and the Diaspora my idea was a kind of dialogue in art:
I painted portraits of Jewish men and women living in Europe and Israel, and asked the subjects, to write about their subjective view and perspective on the diasporic experience in my painting. I started in October 2016 in Israel with Interviews and portraits, photos and draft and later in Switzerland and Germany, returned 6 months later to continue and the portraits and let inscribe their thought and feelings about 'Tfutzot'. The painting included their face and symbols of their life, and I found individual colours for each person, who had experience with living in Israel and Diaspora, or were connected with both through their family histories.
Both artists from Jerusalem brought their ideas: Ruth Schreiber with a work with the title 'Abraham's Aliya & all that followed' and Chana Cromer with mixed media piece: 'Perfect Faith'. She participated the event and stayed a day longer for giving more guiding tours. As did I for two weekends for the public.
Joshua, my younger's work was related to the city of the first Jewish diaspora community in Europe: Rome. He made a 2 meter-big wood sculpture after a small metal Chanukkiah from Rome (around 1700).
Samuel Fischer-Glaser, my older son, made drawings based on handwritten, anonymous inscriptions in old Hebrew books, printed in the Diaspora, in Amsterdam, Livorno and Prague.
The Sephardic musician, Chaim Kapuja, who grew up in Israel, sang and played Hebrew and Sephardic songs from several European countries.
Marlis, one of your most incredible projects is the "Abraham Project", which lasted from 2005 to 2016. A collection of more than 180 portrait sketches and paintings which brings together biblical, historical and biographical content and elements from the history of art. Could you tell us what are the motivations of this project and how do you relate the different symbolic elements that you use?
The subtitle of this project was: 'pictures about German speaking survivors and emigrants and their children in Israel' One point was to preserve their stories, which are also stories about German history. Each portrait is related to the biography, documented in three catalogues.
My approach toward the individual subjects was this:
1. Their face
2. An accompanying tree painting, as a continuity from Abraham until today, signified by the titles 'And Jakob planted a tree', 'And Shulamit planted a tree', etc. referencing the project title 'And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree'.
Here I combined the tree, Shulamit Gefen planted in Shavei Tzion with the medieval depiction of a tree and a quote from the Book of Genesis on the growth of trees. I used the colours she had mentioned in her description of her family's arrival in Haifa after they had fled Germany.
3. Another motif was an object from the subject's life and their story, e.g. Israel Shapiro's father's brass knuckles, a self-defence weapon against anti-Semites in Vienna. I combined it with King David's crown, a symbol for the city of Jerusalem, a date palm from his garden in Haifa, and an ultrasonic scan (symbolising his profession): 'And Israel planted a tree'.
4. Everyone has a name: The Hebraization of first and often surnames after fleeing Europe was a turning point in biography and identity. Therefore, I painted some of the names? meanings.
For the name 'Yitzhak', I painted laughing, sunny eyes as a reference to the prophecy of his birth ? Sarah is told that she will give birth despite her old age and erupts into laughter.
I continue this concept and don't see it as finished - I still produce paintings relating to Jewish holidays and history, using emigrants' childhood photos or names.
Your story with the European Day of Jewish Culture is extraordinary. One person individually proposes a fantastic program on an annual basis. You create specific works related to the theme of the year. Could you tell us how you started to organize these activities? And also, the challenge that it means annually to organize a program as complete as yours?
As an artist, I have built a network over the years. It started with my impression that the German public was associating everything connected to Judaism with persecution and the Shoah. I had already produced artworks about these subjects (for example a project with schoolchildren about Janusz Korczak and his orphans and the Abraham project), but these were multi-facetted and not simply remembrance projects.
When I started creating paintings with symbols of Jewish holidays in 2002 and tree metaphors in 2004 (Cypress couples, drawn in and around Jerusalem, as an allegory of the counterpart of the Other), some of my audience still saw them as related to persecution and reacted negatively. I wanted to convey Judaism as a fantastic spiritual world with universal traditions and messages. In 2008, I organized the first European Day of Jewish Culture event in Attenweiler - at first only in my studio with about 35 visitors, with a Sephardic musician and my 16-year-old son Samuel who gave an introduction to Hebrew printmaking in the 18th and 19th century, based on his collection of Hebrew prints.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, so I continued the annual event with the help of my sons. We especially benefitted from our contacts to fellow artists in Israel and Germany. After renovating and converting part of the house into an exhibition space, the event takes place there with over 100 visitors every year; the artworks remain on display for two weeks after the event.
In the meantime, I have gained the support and coalition of both Catholic and Protestant organizations, which is important not just in terms of funding. For a few years, the events were supported by the German-Israeli Society. But either way, I couldn?t have done them without the practical support and the artistic participation by my sons, since I?m doing this alongside my commercial work. It is a challenge that I enjoy.
In your work as an artist you have exhibited in many European countries. What do you think is the role of Jewish culture in Europe today? Do you think we are experiencing a rebirth of Jewish culture? Do you think that in Germany you live this issue differently?
I do think that the subject of Jewish culture is starting to be better received in Europe, despite the resurgence of right-wing politics and anti-Semitism. But it will take a long time until Germans will be ready to appreciate the immense treasure of Jewish tradition and ethics and not refuse it as part of an imposed remembrance culture.
Could you share with us the artistic projects you are working on right now? The theme of the European Day of Jewish Culture next year is "Storytelling", how would you like to focus on this topic?
I want to introduce historical and biblical stories, to highlight how meaningful the tradition of 'storytelling' in the Jewish tradition is: Listening to stories is inspiring, can help to understand the content of a message and can opens hearts. Spoken words are important. Visual Art influenced by stories is important, but I want also ask the question: what would be left for us with only spoken or written words and no image, no object, no sculpture? Art needs words to connect, mostly, to understand, what's is behind what I see?
Stories, expressed in colours, lines, rhythms of composition, contrast, powerful or tender tells us about our sometimes unconscious and hidden phantasies and imagination which we don't want to articulate. So, no antagonism between visual arts and spoken thoughts, literature.
My current work is about the biblical story about Tamar and Yehuda and the different ways to interpret it, because this influence my way of finding a composition for my painting. The second subject is about the brave and important Renaissance merchant woman Dona Gracia Mendes and aspects of her life. Which facet inspires to me? And, this is funny: it is a very convenient subject for the next motto of EDJC 2018, but I started with this several weeks ago. What kind of work my sons Samuel and Joshua will find, we shall see.