Marlene Rolfe

In the paintings of Marlene Rolfe, the uneasiness of her position as both daughter and mother—memorably expressed in Family of 1990—is inextricably bound up with her awareness of her mother’s and her aunt’s past, dealt with more explicitly in other paintings. Her mother Ilse, who was born into an assimilated Berlin Jewish family, was active in the German Communist Party and spent three years as a political prisoner in concentration camps before her release in 1938, when she emigrated to England and later married a non-Jew. Her mother’s twin sister Else, a Social Democrat, was also interned and released, escaping to Norway and thence to New York.

The artist herself, born in London in 1946, refers to her parents as eccentric. Her “terribly English” father took her to church on Sundays, an experienced that created in her a love of stained-glass windows and the high voices of choirboys. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible may even have provided the stimulus for studying English at Cambridge University and, later, fine art and critical studies at the Central St. Martin’s School of Art.  Initially, Rolfe knew virtually nothing of her mother’s history but with the “old age, frailty and death of [her] mother and aunt,” she “increasingly wanted to recreate the lost worlds of their past and of [her] own childhood.”

Extract by Monica Bohm-Duchen from Artists: Contemporary Anglo | Jewish Women’s Archive (