Israeli culture, Judaic roots in Christianity, inform artist’s work

Swiss artist Verena Brassel

By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Jewish Light

Swiss artist Verena Brassel has visited Israel 16 times, is deeply affected by survivors of the Holocaust and believes she has a responsibility to tell young people about the tragedies of World War II … and she isn’t Jewish.

“I went to Israel because my husband volunteered there after the Six-Day War,” explained Brassel, 67.  “He showed me pictures and informed me about the country and its people, and this triggered my fascination.”  

Though Brassel didn’t go to Israel for the first time until 1990, when she and her husband visited friends there, she had been curious about the country since 1967.  Her interest in it increased exponentially after her initial visit.

During the many trips Brassel and her husband made to Israel, they formed close friendships with Jews there.  


“Some of their parents survived the Holocaust, and their history touched me deeply,” she said.  “The will to survive after all the persecution impressed me very much.”

Brassel also became interested in Jewish rituals.  On one visit to Israel with her husband and small children, her family celebrated Shabbat and Sukkot with Israeli friends.  

“These rituals gave me a feeling of a spiritual home, security and confraternity,” she said.

For Brassel, Israel is the site of the connection between Judaism and Christianity.

“Judaism is the root of Christian culture, and it’s important to show that in my work,” she said.

With regard to her art, Brassel said, “I was creative as a child, but I started painting professionally only after a skiing accident in the 1980s, when I broke my leg.  I couldn’t move for some time, so I began to paint.  Then I took courses, too.”  

In the late 1980s she studied painting under internationally renowned artists at an art school.

Brassel will exhibit some of her mixed-media paintings in a show titled “Contemplation” at the Gallery at the University City Public Library.  A number of these works explore Jewish and Israeli themes.  

“I named the show ‘Contemplation’ because this term includes all aspects of my work: reflections on social questions, meditation and history,” Brassel said.

The artist’s paintings possess a misty, atmospheric quality with a mix of mysticism and spirituality.  Her favorite work in the exhibition is titled “Vision of Peace” and consists of three concentric squares in copper-green, pale blue and white.  Inside the white square she placed text written by Yigal Allon, an Israeli politician who died in 1980.

“His vision of peace was: The different peoples must learn to coexist,” Brassel said. “I loved the idea of working together for the benefit of culture and art instead of making war.”  

To demonstrate Allon’s desire to bring together different cultures, Brassel included in the piece an Arabic translation of his words.

“Sign,” another multilayered piece, is an abstract painting made up of rich red, pink and gold tones. The top three-quarters of the piece is red, the lower quarter deep pink.  In the center, a gold square hovers below a multicolor square, which frames a gold Aramaic letter that stands for God.  

“This letter is a mystic sign for the power of God,” the artist said.

One of the more evocative pieces is “Passage Way,” a beautifully atmospheric painting that depicts a stone archway 

through which two dark-robed figures pass. The edges of the arch and figures dissolve into gray.  

“The arch is a general symbol for Jerusalem, because I found many arches in the Old City,” Brassel said. “It is also a symbol of our way through life, and of our Jewish and Christian roots.”

Brassel has always been attracted to history and ancient cultures.  She likes ancient writings, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, and incorporates them into her work by obtaining copies and transferring the text to handmade paper.

The artist also incorporates soil from Israel into her work, at times mixing it with glue or acrylic paste, or even eggs, honey and linseed oil.

In addition to examining the spiritual aspects of Judaism, Brassel’s work also tackles tough subjects such as the Holocaust, which she researched extensively.  

“I’m strongly affected by the history of World War II,” she said. “We should never forget, and we need to talk about it with young people.”

As an artist, she acknowledges the difficulties of depicting the Shoah in art.

“It’s challenging to convey historical facts and express personal feelings in a painting,” Brassel said. “Not every viewer wants to think about serious things.”

Through her art, Brassel hopes to dispel prejudice and anti-Semitism.

Alhough she lives in Altstätten, Switzerland, and is only a four-hour plane ride away from Israel, Brassel’s separation from the country remains with her.  

“I’m always a bit homesick for Israel,” she said.