In self-portraits, she appears as a pinched, blank figure. Her fellow students remembered her as “withdrawn” and “nondescript.” But when an artist friend asked recently if a painter’s work had ever moved me to tears, only one name came to mind: Charlotte Salomon.
Lachrymose criticism often obscures its subject and is no guarantee of quality. Yet Salomon’s art is so singular that, while mourning her tragic fate, we’re exhilarated by her originality. Life? or Theater?, her major work, was conceived as an opera or “song-play” composed of over 700 small gouaches depicting scenes from her Berlin Jewish childhood and adolescence, numbered like the pages of a notebook and laced with dialogue, musical cues, and commentary. She painted them during a year of exile, shutting herself inside a hotel room in the South of France. As Hitler’s armies marched across Europe, she hummed tunes to herself in order to unlock the doors of memory. In 1943, a year after the work’s completion, 26 years old and four months pregnant, she was deported to Auschwitz and died there. Nearly 400 pages from Life? or Theater? are now on view at the Jewish Museum, in a show organized by London’s Royal Academy; they reveal an art of astonishing vibrancy, humor, inventiveness, and complexity.
Life? or Theater? is closely based on Salomon’s life story, but its title questions the relation between truth and autobiography, as if to soften the harsh blows history dealt her. The cast of characters introduces Charlotte Kann (a stand-in for the artist) and her parents, Albert and Franziska. Throughout the work, as in musical counterpoint, light tones alternate with somber notes. The curtain rises in 1913, when Franziska’s sister, a girl of 18, drowns herself. Four years later, a baby girl is born to the Kanns and named for her late aunt Charlotte. A childhood trip to Bavaria is lovingly detailed in brilliant greens and blues, as delicate and vivid as a Persian miniature. Franziska is tenderly devoted to her little girl, but when Charlotte is eight, her mother jumps out a window. (Salomon was told she had died of influenza.) The image of Franziska’s crushed and jumbled body is followed by scenes in which the child waits in vain for her mother’s return as an angel.
Five years later, Salomon’s father, a professor of medicine, married an opera singer, Paula Lindberg. Salomon calls her Paulinka Bimbaum and devotes several pages to her girlhood as the daughter of a small-town rabbi, her rise to musical prominence, and love affairs with eminent men. The triumphs of this vivacious and ferociously capable artist are shadowed by the voice of Charlotte’s grandmother, who tells the troubled saga of her own family—cultivated, assimilated Jews plagued by mental instability. Their stories intertwine in a work of loss and redemption.
Salomon left school at 16, after Hitler’s rise to power. In Life? or Theater? she depicts the anti-Semitic masses assembled in the Berlin streets as an anonymous, brown-shirted blur. Dr. Kann loses his professorship and must practice at a Jewish hospital; Paulinka is barred from performing before an Aryan public. In these unpromising circumstances, and despite repeated assurances that she lacks talent, Charlotte embraces art as her vocation.
Between 1936 and 1938, Salomon studied at Berlin’s Art Academy, then under the sway of National Socialism; she was admitted as part of a tiny quota of Jewish students. One wonders what she learned there. In Life? or Theater? her frankly expressive use of color and line recall the lyricism of Modigliani and the biting satire of Grosz, artists condemned as “degenerate” by Nazi hierarchy. Her storytelling techniques are also startlingly inventive. Multiple scenes are compressed on a single page, as in Renaissance depictions of saints’ lives. Dissecting time, she savors pleasures and gains control over unbearable events. On one sheet, for example, Charlotte’s grandmother receives a letter from Paulinka accusing her of responsibility for her daughters’ suicides. We see the grandparents at dinner, the servant bringing in the envelope, the old woman taking out her glass and regarding it before opening and reading it; as she walks upstairs to her room, we imagine its devastating emotional effects.
Salomon reserved her most mordant ironies for Alfred Wolfson, her first great love—a 41-year-old, unemployed voice teacher, who had suffered shell shock in the trenches of the First World War and written about his experiences. In Life? or Theater? she calls him Amadeus Daberlohn; his thin, bespectacled figure in a shabby gray suit enters the narrative to the emphatically heroic strains of the toreador’s song from Carmen. Smitten with Paulinka, Daberlohn at first ignores Charlotte; later, with the vampirism peculiar to middle-aged intellectuals, he deems her “significant for his theories of the future.”
Repeated images of Daberlohn’s pumpkin-colored head or reclining, anchovy-like body bounce through the middle section of Life? or Theater?, spouting extravagant pronouncements about an artist’s need to descend, like Orpheus, into the realms of the dead. Functioning like close-ups in film, these pages convey emotional intensity and obsessional urgency; they’re also strangely funny. Salomon recognizes her own foolishness alongside her lover’s vulnerability and pomposity. She hangs longingly upon faint praise he offers in a letter: She is destined to create something “above average.” Yet in the end, her memory of his belief in her remains her most precious and sustaining possession.
After the pogroms of November 9, 1938, conditions for Jews in Germany worsened. Salomon escaped to Nice, where her grandparents had found refuge in the villa of a wealthy American. (In Life? or Theater? the wrenching scenes of Charlotte’s hurried departure from Berlin and Daberlohn take place without musical cues or commentary.) When war broke out the following year, her grandmother took her own life, and her grandfather revealed to Salomon the secret legacy of suicide that ran through her mother’s family. The last section of Life? or Theater? is painted in a hurriedly expressionistic style, as if time were running out, or the artist were unwilling to linger over these painful events. It ends with several pages of densely packed text.
In 1940, Salomon and her grandfather were briefly interned in the French transit camp of Gurs—he died soon afterward. She moved to a small hotel in Cap Ferrat, and, to stave off madness, began working on Life? or Theater? A year later, she returned to the villa and married its sole remaining inhabitant, an Austrian refugee named Alexander Nagler. She was carrying his child when they were deported. Salomon was murdered upon arrival in Auschwitz; Nagler died a few months later. Albert and Paula Salomon had survived the war in hiding; when they traveled to Nice looking for news of their daughter, they were given Life? or Theater?, and it shocked them.
In a recent New York Times article, Michael Kimmelman urged readers to view Salomon’s work beyond the confines of “the eye-glazing, inviolate category of Holocaust artist.” His point is well taken. Yet Salomon’s oeuvre is also inseparable from the historical circumstances of its making. Her intense fervor for life, which flamed up in the face of gradual processes of dehumanization, was also deeply political. It was an urgent assertion of her existence against the twin threats of suicide and annihilation. As her world fell apart, she looked within herself and created it anew, daring to speak of private wounds and passions. Fueled by an inner need to give order to a life, her work remains among the most powerful refutations of the forces that destroyed her.