The Colors of Light

Deborah Philips holding a box with her artwork

When delivering her art works to the Jewish Museum Berlin, Deborah S. Phillips naturally wears blue nail polish © Jewish Museum Berlin. Photo: Maren Krüger

A visit to Berlin-Neukölln, to the studio apartment of Deborah S. Phillips, who is dressed in blue, today, except for her shoes, which are green. That the artist has spent the last five years examining the color blue and is only now gradually turning her attention to hues of green is reflected thus in her apparel as well as her art.

Red was the first color to which Deborah Phillips devoted herself with a passion. The Bible story she read aloud as a 12-year-old in the synagogue on the occasion of her Bat Mizwa was about the red cow—and it haunted her for ages. It was the tale of a strange animal that had to be sacrificed so people could use its ashes to cleanse themselves of sin. Only then would they be able to enter the temple in Jerusalem. Many years later, Deborah Phillip’s reflections on the color red and its cultural significance culminated in one of her enchanting works on paper, the “Red Book,” which is the fruit also of the artist’s extensive voyages in Iran, India and Central Asia, and her affinity with Islamic cultures.

Artworks with blue rubber stamp print

“Tchelet ve Argaman,” lithograph & rubber stamp print, Deborah S. Phillips, 2015 © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Claudia Rannow

In the meantime there is a “Blue Book” too. On my visit I was allowed to leaf through the freshly finished art books, seven unique editions in all. Compiled therein are lithographs, monotypes, photo collages, lead-type-set text, block prints, and small drawings executed in nail varnish of every conceivable shade of blue.

Deborah Phillips’s fascination with the color blue is likewise of Biblical origin. The fourth Book of Moses bids the faithful to sew threads onto the four corners of their prayer cloak as a constant reminder of the Lord’s commandments. Some of the threads, it is said, should be dyed blue or “tchelet,” to use the Hebrew term. Since it was impossible to say exactly which shade of blue was meant, scholars later revoked this precept and ordained the use of white thread instead. Rabbinical discussions about “tchelet” occupied Deborah already when she was a girl. Nowadays, in Israel, the secular yet supernal term “tchelet” describes merely the color of the sky.

Artworks with blue rubber stamp print

“Tchelet Fragments,” lithograph, monotype & rubber stamp print, Deborah S. Phillips, 2014 © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

Colors and sounds, letters of the alphabet, spices and smells: all these flow together in Deborah Phillips’s artistic practice—and what may thereby eventually transpire is as much a mystery to her as to anyone. Her work on the “Blue Book” gave rise, quasi as a byproduct, to the monotypes for purchase since 2015 in our Art Vending Machines in the permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin. On around a half of these mini paper sheets the artist traced only a single Hebrew character, namely “tchelet”; on the others she stamped the word “argaman.” This second word means “purple,” a royal color once worn by priests in the ancient temples of Jerusalem.

In addition to her works on paper, Deborah Phillips creates films, installations and performances. She works as a translator, coordinates cultural projects, and is an excellent cook as well as a “spice consultant.”

Wall with artworks and bookshelf

Deborah S. Phillips’ studio, March 2015
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Maren Krüger

By the way, not only colors play a major role in the (artistic) life of Deborah Phillips but also an infamous street in Neukölln, the Hermannstraße. For her mother’s maiden name was Hermann and the artist herself has lived in the Hermannstraße/ Hermannplatz neighborhood for many years. This coincidence prompted a project with the title HERMAN(N).

Colors, odors, voices and sounds, delicate, dazzling and wild, accompanied me on my way from Deborah’s studio apartment to the subway, down Hermannstraße.

Maren Krüger visited the artist Deborah S. Phillips in her studio apartment in Berlin-Neukölln.


A Second Look

Occasionally there’s an item in our collection that only reveals itself at second glance: for instance, this photograph of a group of men, taken in Lissa in the Prussian province of Posen, in 1913.

A group of friends in suits, drinking wine.

Walter Frost (1893 – 1968) with friends
Lissa, Posen, 1913, photography
© Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Edith Marcus née Frost

You have to look very closely to recognize what’s lying on the table. In the left foreground, next to the various traces of an alcohol-infused social gathering, is an issue of the magazine Ost und West (East and West), and further to the right is a donation can for the Jewish National Fund with a Star of David on it. These objects allow us to connect the barely 9 x 14 cm little picture with the Zionist movement.
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Farewell letter, ink on paper

In the archive of the Jewish Museum Berlin, there is a moving letter that Marianne Joachim wrote to her in-laws on 4 March 1943. That same day at the Berlin Plötzensee detention center, the young woman was executed.

Farewell letter from Marianne Joachim

Farewell letter from Marianne Joachim née Prager (1921 – 1943)
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

What had happened? Marianne and Heinz Joachim supposedly joined a resistance group in 1941 led by Herbert Baum. A Jew and communist, Baum had been gathering like-minded friends around him since 1933 to generate resistance against the politics of National Socialism. On 18 May 1942, the group attempted to set fire to the anti-Soviet exhibit “The Soviet Paradise” in Berlin’s Lustgarten. Among the members jailed in short order and sentenced to death were Marianne and Heinz Joachim.

We learn from her letter that finding out that her husband had already been executed on 18 August 1942 in Berlin Plötzensee was the “heaviest stroke of fate” for Marianne. Her greatest concern was for her parents, Jenny and Georg Prager. They were deported in March 1943 to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt where they were killed. Marianne’s sister, Ilse, was able to escape on one of the last Kindertransports to England. Heinz Joachim’s father Alfons, died at the end of 1944 at the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. His mother, Anna, did not have a Jewish background and therefore survived the National Socialist period, as did his brothers.  continue reading