Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?

Charlotte Salomon/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam/Charlotte Salomon FoundationCharlotte reflecting on her first love; paintings by Charlotte Salomon from Life? or Theatre?, 1940–1942

A woman walks down the red stairs of a tall roofless building. Her dress is almost black. Her hair is pulled back, her arms crossed against the cold, her face melancholy. She walks past denuded trees up a darkened street, curves into another, and another. The wind seems to be propelling her, tugging at her, so that at one point her hair tumbles free, her dress whirls. Lamplight turns pavement and road a stormy sea blue. As she comes closer her path is outlined in blood red, until red takes her over to transform her into a drowning figure in a blackened lake.

The next day the newspaper carries the headline “1

This description of the painter humming while working in an utterly concentrated, trancelike state may well have brought to life Charlotte’s home, where her stepmother sang and rehearsed continually—eventually with a singing coach who would come to play a large part in Charlotte’s life.

A prologue, a main section, and an epilogue make up the book’s three acts. The first section, containing 211 images overlaid with tracing paper on which handwritten words describe the illustrated action, introduces us to her wealthy, cultivated family, her childhood, and the death of her mother, Franziska. It’s a riveting story, even without Salomon’s stunning images.

Having decided, after her own sister’s suicide, to become a nurse and join the army medical corps, Franziska meets a young doctor, Albert. She marries him, although her parents have misgivings about the match. Charlotte is born on his return from the front in 1917. A series of bright gouaches joyfully detail the early years of infancy and family life, the white nursery, the childhood games, the hugs. But by scene two, Franziska is crushed by despair. An eerie image of a window opening onto a blue void announces her death. Then against a background of urgent orange, green, and yellow brushstrokes, her crumpled figure lies in a vertical heap, with one leg askew high in the air. On the opposite page, her mother, Mrs. Knarre, crouches like a chthonic deity to maternal mourning. The text reads: “Grief spreads throughout her body. It transcends her own suffering. It is the suffering of the world.”

The suicide is kept secret from eight-year-old Charlotte, who awaits the letter from heaven her mother had promised her. She turns into a shy, difficult, lonely child, perking up only on travels with her grandparents to the Dolomites, Venice, and Rome, where the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel leaves an indelible mark on her.

The arrival of an adored and adoring singing stepmother changes everything. A blond, fearless beauty, her Jewish roots lie in a small town where her father was a “singing Rabbi” who performed both in synagogue and in churches, as does his daughter. Paulinka has a fund of energy and good sense that extends to reprimanding the ever arrogant and critical grandparents. She transforms Charlotte’s life, and in the process introduces her for the first time to the more religious sides of Jewishness.

The good days soon come to an end. Anti-Semitism forces Charlotte from her elite school, and the whole family from their positions. In an image dated 1933, Salomon depicts the Nazi takeover: amid a marching, capped, and mustachioed mass, a banner flies with a reverse swastika. On the opposite page stones are being thrown at shops, one bearing her family name, while a crowd rallies around a huge copy of Der Stürmer, the “organ of popular enlightenment” that fomented hatred of the Jews.

On top of such political dangers and restrictions on Jews, Charlotte suffers the usual difficulties of adolescence, a time of uncertainties, jealousies, rivalries with friends, and, even back then, some rebellion against parents. Salomon is brilliant here at shifting points of view so that the viewer/reader is never trapped in Charlotte’s single perspective, but sees her sullenness in relation to the beauty of school friends or the equanimity of her stepmother.

This section ends in 1937 when Charlotte, after two years at the Berlin Academy for Fine and Applied Arts in Charlottenburg, is awarded a prize but deprived of a diploma because she is Jewish. She is in fact the only Jewish student remaining at the school, having been admitted after all the Jewish teachers had been fired. The minutes of the admissions committee (February 7, 1936) state that because of her “reserved nature,” she posed no danger to the racial purity of the Aryan students. The images from these academy days contain some of the most finished freestanding portraits in the book, particularly of Charlotte’s friend Barbara in a mood of reverie. Yet they have nothing of the monumentality or that echt-German “fairy tale” quality that the school, now purged of degenerate art, encouraged.

Life? or Theatre? then focuses on Amadeus Daberlohn (Alfred Wolfsohn), a penniless singing coach with a philosophical bent who exalts the singing voice and the movies and is Charlotte’s first love. Although Daberlohn is in love with her stepmother, he encourages Charlotte’s art. In this second section, tracing paper is replaced by bold text written directly on the image. Sometimes these texts counterpoint the pictorial scene, providing caustic commentary. Sometimes they describe the visual action or the vicissitudes of a character’s inner life.

In one long section, Daberlohn’s romantic Nietzschean philosophy is written under 1,387 close-ups of his speaking face. In others, in a radical departure of visual representation, he lectures while lying down, a cigarette in hand. He may be a mansplainer, but it is Charlotte who expresses his words. It is clear she gains creative strength from Daberlohn, who, like the Orpheus so prevalent in his ideas, survived an encounter with death when he was buried in a trench among corpses in World War I. Amnesia and aphonia accompanied his “rebirth”: when his voice returned, it was with the conviction that song was the greatest of arts. Nazi work restrictions have reduced him to penury. He hypothesizes that destructive and generative forces swirl in the unconscious and feed the artist, who is, in his view, an androgynous creature. This theory of dual gendering has a freeing influence on Charlotte.

Salomon’s epilogue brings the action of her theater to the French Riviera in 1939: the heroine has escaped Nazi Germany to join her grandparents, who moved there in 1934. She travels alone. Her father, through his wife’s efforts, has been released from forced labor at Sachsenhausen. But their passes with false IDs haven’t yet come through, and Charlotte needs to leave Germany before her twenty-first birthday, when she would need a new document. A darkly ominous sequence depicts the departure as both a heart-wrenching separation and a deportation.

It is amid the intense blues and luxuriant greens of the Mediterranean that Salomon’s determination to create her Singspiel comes into being. Her grandmother, learning that war has broken out, succumbs to her recurring despair—“the awful pain that has pursued her throughout her life.” She tries to hang herself. When she doesn’t succeed, her howls are writ large in a series of fierce images in which rudimentarily outlined figures move against a wash of Munch-like colors: “Oh let me die, let me die… I can’t go on living.”

Charlotte Salomon/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam/Charlotte Salomon FoundationCharlotte’s grandfather telling her about suicides in the family

Charlotte’s ever-insensitive and self-serving grandfather chooses this moment to tell her the secret and, for him, shameful history of the suicides that plagued so many in his wife’s disturbed family. It is the first time Charlotte hears about these self-inflicted deaths, including her mother’s. Bravely she tries to turn her increasingly addled grandmother around by using Daberlohn’s ideas. But the old woman’s agony takes her over: it’s a guilty madness, as if she were both prey to a ruthless inherited death instinct and responsible for the many suicides in her family. She also wants to throttle her husband, who has always belittled her suffering, insisted on covering it up, and focused on the bright side of life. We are again shown a window overlooking the void, and on the following page, a pink upturned body with its leg uncannily elevated in a wave—a repetition of the maternal suicide.

Caring for her infirm and increasingly senile grandfather, together with the brutal experience of Gurs—the prison camp in the Pyrenees where enemy aliens were sent in an overcrammed railway car—brings Charlotte herself to the verge of succumbing to the preordained family pattern. She feels doomed. An abyss opens. Her doctor advises her to start painting again: making art will bring her around. She remembers her mentor, her real or imaginary lover, and with Daberlohn’s voice in her mind’s ear, she begins “to create her world anew from the depths.”

The narrative has now come full circle. As if she were Proust’s daughter, Charlotte is now impelled to redeem lost and wasted time—as well as times laid waste. And so Life? or Theatre? is born.

All of the images and text in Life? or Theatre? are painted in three colors: red, yellow, and blue. Salomon blends these into brightly radiant or deadly somber hues. Whether this restricted palette was a deliberate choice or an accident of impoverished circumstances, we will never know. What is clear, however, is that with this paucity of means, the twenty-three-year-old Charlotte created a hybrid work of startling artistic innovation, at once a book, a storyboard for a silent film with indicated musical accompaniment (though sometimes a talkie complete with long shots and close-ups), and a powerful graphic novel decades ahead of its time, incorporating some of the stunning poster-art techniques of Weimar Germany.

Many of her images also emerge as vibrant, freestanding gallery art. There are complex perspectives that bring to mind Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Friedrichstrasse or George Grosz’s depictions of disparate urban scenes occurring simultaneously within one pictorial space. There is expressive gesture and heightened emotion reminiscent of Munch or Max Beckmann, and occasionally, too, the languor of Modigliani. All this is combined with a Fauvist palette and a variety of brushstrokes, plus, on occasion, graffiti-like texts. But despite these parallels, the artistic signature is unmistakably that of Charlotte Salomon. With its energy and fierceness, the series is a remarkable accomplishment for so young an artist.

Charlotte’s serious, youthful face in a self-portrait stares directly out at us from Overlook’s sumptuous boxed edition of her opus, which has been published to mark the centenary of her birth. The reproductions are almost the full size of the originals, larger than those in any previous book. This edition not only contains all of Life? or Theatre? but also a previously unpublished and remarkable letter addressed to Amadeus Daberlohn. For the first time in reproduction, the tiniest details of her sometimes-crowded images can clearly be seen. The very luxuriousness of the edition underscores the extent to which Salomon has, after arguably too long a delay, entered the ranks of major twentieth-century artists.

Taschen has also just published a selected edition in a smaller medium octavo format containing 450 gouaches, plus photographs of Charlotte and her circle. The volume contains two excellent background essays, one by Judith C.E. Belinfante, who has been engaged with Salomon’s work and family since 1971, and the other by the art historian Evelyn Benesch, who explores Salomon’s formal inspirations.

In Germany, a new biography by Margret Greiner has appeared: Charlotte Salomon: “Es ist mein ganzes Leben” (2017). This is a rather breezy, somewhat novelistic life as compared with Mary Lowenthal Felstiner’s now classic To Paint Her Life (1994). Greiner’s nonacademic tone may be another sign that Salomon is entering a new sphere of recognition. A translation by Sam Taylor of the French writer David Foenkinos’s best-selling novel Charlotte (2016)—also published by Overlook—brings Salomon’s life ever closer to Anne Frank’s. The novel, more an act of ventriloquism than fiction, has made a large popular audience familiar with the written part of Life? or Theatre? Foenkinos’s main addition is to imagine Charlotte in Auschwitz and to insert material about her parents’ discovery of the gouaches. The book won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and with its breathless rush of one-line sentences, as if it were verse in prose, it does resemble a novel for teenagers.

The centenary is also being marked by an exhibition of all her paintings at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, to which Salomon’s parents in 1971 donated her extant work. I was first introduced to her extraordinary book in the fine exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1998, having been encouraged to see it by the Salomon scholar Darcy Buerkle. For that show, the 2 Yet it’s not altogether clear how interpreting Salomon’s work to present her, and perhaps her mother and aunt, as victims of (grandparental) sexual abuse deepens our understanding of her art or of a history mired in racism and persecution. Suicide was indeed more prevalent among Jewish women in Berlin than Jewish men, but Protestants and Catholics were not far behind: newspapers spoke of a suicide epidemic in urban society as a whole. The horrors of World War I and its aftermath—mass unemployment, a horrible death toll, the wounded ever visible in the streets—contributed to the epidemic. For women who wanted freedom and for whom that desire already produced inner conflict, patriarchal prohibitions—more vociferously expressed because of the evident crisis in masculinity—were an extra burden. Adding sexual abuse to the mountain of ills for the women in the Salomon maternal line merely reduces Charlotte’s suicidal impulse (which was shared by men in the family) to a single hypothetical cause.

It is true that in the final pages of Life? or Theatre? Charlotte’s grandfather callously hands her her dead grandmother’s quilt, and a few pages later, as they flee Nice, he stands in his shirt, saying, “I don’t understand you. What’s wrong with sharing a bed with me—when there’s nothing else available? I’m in favor of what’s natural.” “Don’t torment me,” Charlotte responds. She is already distraught by the flight, by her grandmother’s death, and by her grandfather’s untimely revelations of her family members’ suicides. She thinks she, too, is going mad. The escape of madness is attractive.

It is possible to interpret her grandfather’s act as an indication of long-engrained abuse, or as yet another example of his perennial insensitivity to others. The final pages of Life? or Theatre? depict how she was ever more “crushed by the proximity of her grandfather, tragically hounded as he was by Fate.” She turns it all around “to create her world anew from the depths.”

In the spectacular “lost” letter that Charlotte addressed to her “beloved friend,” Amadeus Daberlohn, included in the Overlook volume, she talks of having made a “Veronalomelette,” an omelette spiked with barbiturates, for the grandfather who she had “discovered was the thorn of the diseased state inside me.” Is this a vengeful murder or euthanasia of an old man she characterizes as a “shallow type”—a “symbol for me of the people I had to resist,” a mere play actor in the “Theatre” that is now “dead”?

We will never know, but the letter, sensitively translated by Darcy Buerkle and Mary Felstiner, has testamentary heft. “Perhaps dearest,” she writes, “it is actually true that with this war even the theater that’s played out by humanity comes to an end so that all of humankind

tested by hard pain and
experience
moves toward
a truer
life-
affirming
life.

Ludwig Grunwald died on February 12, 1943. Charlotte went back to the Villa l’Ermitage, where another refugee, Alexander Nagler, had also lived for some years. They were married on June 17, 1943. Three months later they were arrested and taken to Drancy, outside Paris, from which the trains left for Auschwitz.

Charlotte survived the call of suicide. Only her exhilarating work survived the predations of Nazism.

  1. 1

    This translation uses the masculine pronoun that agrees with Der Mensch (person), but of course the person here is a she: Charlotte. ↩

  2. 2

    See, for example, the work of Darcy Buerkle, Jacqueline Rose, and Griselda Pollock, whose book Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory will be published by Yale University Press in March. ↩