Marlene Rolfe

Born 1946 London


Marlene Rolfe is a painter whose work explores the interior lives of women and her German Jewish family’s history. Rolfe studied English at New Hall (now Murray Edwards) in 1965-68, before obtaining qualifications in English and Education from London University. She worked for a period as a landscape architect and teacher. In 1993 she graduated with a BA in Fine Art and Critical Studies from Central St Martin’s, London. Since the 1980s, Rolfe has researched her family’s experience of the Holocaust, in particular her mother’s imprisonment in German concentration camps. Rolfe attempts to recreate her family’s lost past and own childhood through fragments and memories. Her paintings depict female figures, often juxtaposed with dehumanised, abstract forms suggestive of urban dereliction or the architecture of extermination camps. She has reflected: ‘How can I deal visually with questions of the small actions against the massive sweep of events; of personal, private histories and continuities; of female as opposed to male courage; of women’s work and women’s language?’ 


Artwork Information

Family (1991)

Family depicts multiple generations of Rolfe’s family: she stands in the foreground holding a pair of ghostly family photographs, while her son is perched on the windowsill and her husband lurks in the doorway. The Holocaust appears as a dark undercurrent in the work. As a young woman in Berlin, Rolfe’s mother Ilse was an active member of the Communist Party and the German Resistance. She was arrested and spent three years in concentration camps before being released on the condition that she leave Germany immediately. Born in London a year after the Second World War ended, Rolfe herself is part of the so-called ‘Second Generation’. This unconventional family portrait conveys her uneasiness as both daughter and mother, dealing with the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust. The liminal spaces of windows and doors become a metaphor for her dual role in the family, while the figures’ gazes staring out of the painting create an immediate confrontation with the viewer. 

Kitchen Table (1997)

In Kitchen Table, Rolfe captures a corner of her kitchen table. The cherry-patterned tablecloth and pair of plugs in their sockets become the protagonists of the composition. She focuses on seemingly banal features of everyday life, transforming them into something beautiful and haunting. There are subtle differences between this work and its sister painting, Mum with Red Cup, created the same year. While in Mum with Red Cup the scene appears to be illuminated by a lamp, in Kitchen Table it instead seems flooded in natural light. The plugs are replaced with a human presence – that of Rolfe’s elderly mother. By creating these companion pieces, Rolfe draws attention to the passage of time: through the changing light of a single day and the experiences and memories that make up a human life. 

Mum with Red Cup (1997)

This quiet domestic scene depicts the artist’s kitchen with her mother seated at the table. She seems to be inspecting her own clothing or greeting a pet under the table. The luminous colours convey the impression of dusk, mirroring her mother’s old age and physical frailty. The large red mug which stands centre-stage further emphasises the figure’s small stature. The understated title belies the painting’s emotional charge, capturing this elderly woman’s immense trauma and indomitable force of spirit.