Art History November 14, 2017
From Life? or Theatre?

Recalling Charlotte Salomon


This year marks the centenary of the birth of Charlotte Salomon, the German Jewish artist who died in Auschwitz in 1943 aged twenty-six, a year after she had created one of the most complex, fascinating and challenging artworks of the modern era. Enigmatically titled Leben? Oder Theater? and made up of 784 paintings, this single work demonstrates a dazzling variety of painterly modes, from detailed vignettes on a single page to freely painted fields of colour with barely established figures. Three-hundred-and-thirty of the paintings combine image with text placed in beautiful configurations on tracing paper overlays. Elsewhere, words are painted directly onto the paintings, serving as ironic commentary or dialogue. There are pages of pure text, also painted, that preface and conclude the work, which is fronted by a playbill with Brechtian character names, suggesting an almost satirical theatrical form, and presented with a title page, a sombre memorial page and an anonymous author’s preface. Salomon referred to her work as “my book” and signed it with a cipher, CS, veiling both her gender and her Jewish ethnicity.

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam – to whom Life? or Theatre? was donated in 1971 by Salomon’s parents, who had survived hidden in the Netherlands, where they remained after the war – is celebrating this centenary by exhibiting Life? or Theatre? in its entirety for the first time. The curator Mirjam Knotter argues that only with a complete showing of all 784 of the paintings can the significance of Life? or Theatre? as an artwork be fully grasped. This unique exhib­ition will, she hopes, shift the tendency, evident since paintings and drawings by Salomon were first shown in Amsterdam in 1961, to read this work mostly as an autobiographical narrative rather than a modernist work of art.

Duckworth have recently published a handsome and substantial volume, the first publication of Life? or Theatre? to give English readers access to all of its 784 images with the 330 overlays reproduced, quarter- size, beside them. The full text of additional painted pages, known as the “postscript”, is also included for the first time. This is important because nineteen pages of this critical explanatory text were suppressed by the artist’s family and had disappeared. A typescript was made of the missing “paintings” in 1975 and their contents were made public only in a Dutch documentary film in 2012 (Frans Weisz’s Leven? of Theater?).

There is also a richly illustrated selection of 450 of Salomon’s paintings, published by Taschen, with essays by the former director of the Jewish Historical Museum Judith Belinfante and the curator Evelyn Benesch, which provide a general introduction to the artist and her life and sketch out the artistic context of Berlin art and culture during the 1930s. Belinfante has made clear her interpretation of Life? or Theatre? as an imagined play by firmly identifying the preliminary paintings with which Salomon prefaced her work as “The Programme” – leaning more towards theatre than life. Unlike the Duckworth volume, where the reproductions of the overlays are too small to allow close study of the sometimes densely written or colourfully painted words, Taschen selectively reproduces large-scale those overlays that strikingly compose coloured and pencilled words on the page. Thus the overlays display their own extra­ordinary graphic inventiveness and effect, paralleling the originality of the paintings beneath.

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin, and trained as an artist during the mid-1930s. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, she fled to Villefranche, in the South of France. In June 1940, along with the many other German refugees living on the Côte d’Azur, she was rounded up by the French authorities and briefly incarcerated in the concentration camp of Gurs, on the Atlantic Coast, before being released to care for her elderly grand­father and allowed to return (on foot) to Nice (then under Italian protection and a haven for 40,000 Jewish refugees). Helped by the generosity of an American friend, Ottilie Moore, Salmon was able to devote herself, in an intense period of creativity between summer 1941 and early 1942, to completing over a thousand paintings. Each painting is 32.5 x 25 cm, the scale of a medium-sized drawing pad. She worked in gouache, a water-based paint that has the fluidity and quick-drying properties of watercolour with the substance and depth of oil paint.

Later in 1942, Salomon arranged and numbered the paintings into three sections. A Prologue paints a saga of life and death in Berlin between 1913 and 1936 of four women: a teenager who commits suicide by drowning, a mother (her older sister) who leaps from a window, the grieving mother of both women, who is also the grandmother of the bereaved child, and a stepmother who is a beautiful singer. After Hitler’s takeover of Germany forces the child, now a teenager, out of school, she decides to become an artist. A Main Section, the largest part, covers in intense detail 1937–8, when the art student encounters a survivor of the First World War who preaches a philosophy of art and life drawn from Michelangelo and the works of Nietzsche. His teaching is rehearsed in innumerable paintings of tiny speaking heads or dreaming bodies around which curl his inspirational words about song, creativity, the importance of cinema and of recovering childhood memories, and how the near-encounter with death can become a pathway to loving life.

An Epilogue is set in the South of France between 1939 and July 1940. This includes the now exiled young woman and artist’s desperate attempt to prevent the grandmother from committing suicide as she recalls the deaths of both her daughters and listens anxiously to dreadful news of persecution of the Jews in Germany. The rescue attempt fails and the granddaughter-artist witnesses her shocking death. The work ends with a luminous, Dufy-like painting of the young artist in a bathing costume, seated beside the blue Mediterranean, picking up her brush to paint what we recognize is the background for the very first image of Life? or Theatre? – a night scene when a suicidal teenager steals out of her parents’ house and throws herself to her death in an inky lake. Night and Day, North and South, Death and Life are aligned.

Each section is painted in a different mode. The Prologue demonstrates an astonishing ability to weave an integrated whole out of many tiny scenes. There are brilliant comp­osites painted with telling details of domestic interiors, train stations, holiday travels, encounters with art in Venice and Rome, as well as single-image paintings that capture the often agonized inner world and imagined memories of several women, thus making female depression and suicide both culturally visible and a major theme of this work. History brutally erupts with paintings of riotous fascist crowds. One painting marks Hitler’s rise to power on January 30, 1933, showing the streets filled with celebrating brown-shirted men marching under a Nazi flag. (Salomon inverts the swastika on that flag.) The Main Section creates close-up paintings and dialogues and several series of sheets reproducing the thoughts, writings and lectures of its key character, the war survivor-singing-teacher-philosopher. This character falls in love with the stepmother while enthralling the lonely and depressive twenty-year-old art student with his Nietzschean programme for achieving psychological truth. The Epilogue is brilliantly colourful, with the paintings reaching new levels of freedom. Fluent gestures of the loaded brush create a breathtaking economy, where the barest indications of struggling figures convey the night terrors of a disintegrating mind and the desperation of the young woman trying to save the older woman from death or murder.

To invent so many modes of paintings, Life? or Theatre? draws on a considerable knowledge of modern art – from Van Gogh, Munch, Kollwitz, Grosz, Dix, Chagall, Beckmann, Kirchner, Matisse to Dufy. It also references opera – Gluck, Weber and Bizet. In addition, Beethoven and Mahler, Weimar cabaret music and a fascist anthem are mentioned as musical cues to emotions and unspoken thoughts. The artist references German Expressionist black-and-white films from Murnau to Riefenstahl while she is clearly thinking through the innovations of the 1930s in both colour and sound that made possible the screen musical. Perhaps it was cinema which made possible her daringly hybrid combination of narrative, theatre and song. Although she named her work “my book”, the artist subtitled Life? or Theatre? a Singspiel, a musical play which evokes both Mozart’s fable The Magic Flute and the domestic comedies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German operetta.

Having finalized this unique combination of image, text and musical melodies in two packages, together with the rejected and related material, Salomon put them in the safe keeping of a local doctor in Villefranche in February 1943. She then went into hiding, only to be betrayed to the Gestapo in September that year. Transported first to the holding camp of Drancy, near Paris, and then to Auschwitz, she was murdered on October 10, 1943. Blonde and blue-eyed and young, she was an obvious candidate for selection for slave labour. But because she was pregnant, she was gassed immediately.

We do not know how Charlotte Salomon herself imagined the reception or exhibition of the work. While providing images that seek to explain the suicides of the women, Life? or Theatre? is also the affirmation of the life-saving philosophy the artist had learned from the character in the work she humorously names Amadeus Daberlohn (fusing Mozart with the idea of an impoverished scrounger). Daberlohn is based on the musical innovator, Alfred Wolfsohn (1896–1962), who gave her stepmother singing lessons. Salomon’s work was never exhibited in her lifetime and no one saw it publicly until 1961. As she painted she was still in effect a nameless artist, not just in terms of public recognition but also in a deeper existential sense. She had not yet become herself.

In the puzzling set of paintings called a “postscript” (which Duckworth’s edition reveals as a letter), the artist writes to Amadeus Daberlohn that finding “a name for myself” was one of the reasons she undertook this vast painting project. I think that it was an artist’s name she sought and that the only way of finding it was by making such an artwork. I stress this because the prevailing reading of Life? or Theatre? – these publications included – is as a life story.

Salomon’s characters are affectionately, cruelly, or satirically renamed in the work in a way that is radically at odds with what we know of Charlotte Salomon herself, who was introverted, silent and withdrawn. Her stepmother, an opera singer, is cast as Paulinka Bimbam. The grandparents appear as Mr and Mrs Knarre, meaning the Groaners; the artist’s avatar is Charlotte Kann, meaning something like “Charlotte Can-Do”. Then through the overlays comes an unexpectedly sardonic, sometimes judgemental, voice in chorus-like commentaries. Behind these characters lies a real family of suicidal women and men, a beloved but envied diva stepmother, a distant surgeon father and a seductive war survivor. The elaborate staging, naming and composing of images, complete with ironic commentary on the failings, foibles and melancholy of adults is a poetic fiction in sound, images and words. Much of what we see in this work is thus, like any great fiction or film, an aesthetic transformation of experiences known to the artist or imagined by her as the experiences of others. Salomon created her own hybrid and original art form that thus falls between book and cinema while existing materially as a painted work of art.

First exhibited in Amsterdam in 1961 and again in 1971, Charlotte Salomon slowly gained international recognition through partial exhibitions across Europe, in Israel and the United States. In 1981, the first facsimile edition of the 784 paintings was published in German and English, giving general readers and scholars access to the images but not to the overlays or the music that inspired many of them – a problem finally solved by the making of a CD-ROM in 1995 and the growth of the internet. In 1998, the Royal Academy exhibited a considerable selection from Life? or Theatre? in London for the first time.

In 2015, the Parisian publishing house Tripode made the first complete French translation and reproduction of 784 paintings (26.4 x 20 cm, rather than 32.5 x 25 cm), placing all the overlays beside the images, thus revealing exactly where the artist used them and where she did not. The Duckworth volume is an extended English version of the Tripode edition. It prints, however, the English translations from the first 1981 publication, which are sometimes misleading in relation to the original German because grammar and punctuation have been tidied up. As the reproduction of the overlays is quarter size, the German original is hardly legible. Although the CD-ROM and the currently reformulated Jewish Historical Museum internet files allow us to click on the overlays and position them over the images and even listen to music associated with the images, it is only the book form which allows a concentrated study of the paintings. Certainly, this publication will take its place as the scholarly reference text for both general readers and scholars, even though its scale necessitates the use of a matt paper that cannot do full justice to the originals. It neither reproduces any of the rejected works for comparison, nor indicates if the selected paintings we see are recto or verso. In some critical cases, in the Epilogue for instance, Salomon painted on both sides of the paper; in other cases it is as if she hid a difficult subject on the back.

Duckworth has, however, commissioned the first English translation of the so-called “postscript”, now revealed as a “Letter to Amadeus Daberlohn”, from the American scholars Darcy Buerkle and Mary Felstiner. This is the first time that the complete postscript has been included at all in a publication of Salomon’s work (the known fragments were translated into English by Julia Watson in 2002).

Why is this important? When preparing his first biographical film Charlotte (1981), Frans Weisz had been shown several painted pages of the postscript that the family had not deposited in the Jewish Historical Museum with the rest of their gift. Weisz made a typescript and used some sections for the voiceover in a film that turned Salomon’s paintings into cinematic scenes and told her story as a love story between Charlotte Salomon and Alfred Wolfsohn. But, he promised Salomon’s stepmother, crucial passages in this typescript would remain secret. After her death in 2001, Weisz felt the typescript should become public. So he made a second, documentary film in 2012. These newly revealed pages appear to contain a confession to a murder.

The suppressed painted pages imply that the writer of the text (are we to imagine this as Charlotte Salomon herself or is it still her avatar Charlotte Kann?) laced the breakfast omelette of her grandfather with a barbiturate, Veronal, and was painting this text as she watched him fall into a mortal stupor. According to legal records, Charlotte Salomon’s grandfather Ludwig Grunwald, aged eighty-one, died at 11 am after collapsing in the street in Nice, on February 12, 1943. His French death certificate contains no mention of a suspicious death. Might this “confession” express a wish rather than report an actual attempt on his life? Or could the barbiturates have been insufficient to kill immediately, weakening an already frail old man? There is no answer. What the confession does do, however, is challenge the image created for Charlotte Salomon by the largely autobiographical framing of her elaborate artwork in terms of a battle with suffering.

For his documentary, Weisz filmed an eminent group of scholars, curators and publishers, including Salomon’s biographer, Mary Felstiner, stunned and shocked as they read these pages for the first time. He also filmed them trying to make sense of a confession to murder in terms of their fascination with and admiration of the work of an artist hitherto perceived in terms of pathos and courage. One of the interviewees in Weisz’s film is Judith Belinfante. In her introductory essay in the Taschen publication, Belinfante has to address the confession. She suggests, in the light of currently changing attitudes to terminal illness, that we might want to understand what Charlotte Salomon did as an act of assisted dying, suggesting: “Did Charlotte Salomon wish to spare her grandfather the agonies and indignities of extended old age?” Does that mean she accepts the letter as proof of a deed?

When I first saw Weisz’s film, I too was stunned, but knew we needed to puzzle out this ambiguous text. I now think that our reading of the painted letter – a confession that is at once artwork and text – must depend on a re-reading of the whole of Life? or Theatre? Like a piece of detective fiction, Salomon’s work of art is peppered with clues as to the nature of the crime and its perpetrator. Perhaps, in the process of making paintings through which she imagined stories of the women in her Berlin past, the artist discovered that there had been a crime, something that incited the women to commit suicide. The exact relation between what was packaged up as Life? or Theatre? and the twenty-nine-page postscript-letter, included in the package yet excluded from the titled work, remains undetermined, and undeterminable.

It adds another question mark to the enigma of what Life? or Theatre? is. We still puzzle over why it was made, and what the making of it did for the artist, or failed to do for her six months after its completion when, according to the postscript-letter dated February 1943, she apparently suffers a deadly, possibly suicidal, depression and confesses to this actual, imagined, or wished-for murder of a man who represents the antithesis of the life-giving Amadeus Daberlohn. What had the artist discovered through her invention about the lives and deaths of women in her family? Did what she discover shape what she confesses retrospectively in the letter?

While giving us access to illustrations of Charlotte Salomon’s extraordinarily varied paintings, with translated texts and images of the overlays, these volumes still point their readers to a largely autobiographical and narrative interpretation of what we are seeing. They show us the work but offer no substantial art- historical or textual analysis. I remain unconvinced that we can learn who Charlotte Salomon was, or what she made, if her paintings are repeatedly presented melodramatically as a self-reflecting narrative of the poignant and tragic life story of a young woman burdened by a traumatic family history.

The title, with its two question marks, replaces narrative with interrogation, for which a unique work of image-text-music was its specially fashioned medium. The title also implies a choice. By 1943, Charlotte Salomon had found her voice and made for herself a name as an artist. Yet, with its many unanswered questions and extraordinary range of artistic forms and changes of mood and tone, Life? or Theatre? still awaits serious art-historical interpretation.