Monday, October 11, 2010

Charlotte: Life or Theater?: An Autobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon, work created 1940-1942

" [Charlotte Salomon's] 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." From a review by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice in January, 2002 of a selection of Salomon's paintings that were being exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Charlotte Salomon (1917- 1943)  was born and brought up in Berlin, Germany, the daughter of accomplished, assimilated Jews involved in the rich intellectual life of Berlin before the war. But because of the war and the continued assault on the increasingly diminishing Jewish population, she fled in 1939 to the south of France to live with her grandparents who had moved there in 1933 when Hitler came to power. There Charlotte Salomon feverishly painted and dramatized her life in over 1000 gouaches which she completed and handed over to the village doctor for safe-keeping before she was deported and killed at Auschwitz.
Charlotte Salomon was a serious art student. She was an accomplished young artist, whose influences are apparent. She has presented her life as theater – theater of the absurd is what comes to mind. Her work is quite original – avante garde in conception and execution – consisting of painting as well as narration (often rhymed) with directions for musical accompaniment. It should be noted that she has created characters based on their real-life counterparts and given family members fictional last names.

The focus of her work is, on the surface, her family and its personal history – which caused her great pain and anxiety. There were multiple suicides on the maternal side of her family, including her mother’s sister Charlotte, after whom she was named. Her own mother took her life when Salomon was nine years old, and then her grandmother killed herself when Charlotte Salomon was living with her and her grandfather in the south of France. Knowing this family history, Salomon feared for her own mental stability.

Beneath that layer, intensifying the nightmare quality of the family story is the horror of the war and its immediate effect on her and her family. There has been some critical discussion about how in Theater or Life? Solomon blended fiction and fact. But however Salomon might have re-calibrated some events in her life to serve her art, there can be no question about her accuracy in portraying the war and its effect on her, her family and friends. The paintings that are specifically about the war have a documentary feel – the bare facts compromise a nightmare in and of themselves.

For example Act II starts with the April 1, 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. She includes a rendering of a page from the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, and then paints several pictures showing his father’s being fired from his medical position. She also builds a painting around a rendering of a 1938 page from a copy of Der Angriff, a Berlin Nazi newspaper full of anti-Jewish propaganda. What follows are family scenes of distress in reaction to the intensifying anti-Semitism. There’s a knock on the door – the Nazi police come for her father. His prominent wife, an opera singer, sets out to see if she can pull strings to get him released.

Salomon’s stated goal was to make an artistic creation of life as a way to reclaim her life. The tragic irony of course is that her immersion in this project did save her from suicide – but not from Auschwitz.

Note: As stated above, Charlotte Salomon changed the last name of family members and the full name of a close family friend. The Viking 1981 edition of Life or Theater has three introductory essays that, in giving us background information, use some of her characters’ real names. In the Preface, Judith C.E. Belinfante, the Director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, explains how the paintings came to be a part of their collection and what they have done to preserve and display them. In the Foreword, Judith Herzberg fills out the circumstances of Charlotte Salomon’s life including the circumstances surrounding her marriage shortly before her death to Alexander Nagler, an autobiographical event that Salomon does not include in her work. In an Editorial note, Gary Schwartz discusses how this Viking edition was constructed out of her paintings. (The Viking edition is now out of print but is available in libraries and for purchase as a used book.)

Since Charlotte Salomon's work is owned by the Jewish History Museum of Amsterdam, you can often find pictures of Charlotte Salomon's work on their site, but the museum changes what they feature on their site.To go to the website of the Jewish History of Amsterdam click here.

Albert Salomon – married Franziska; 2nd marriage to Paula Lindberg
     Charlotte – daughter of Albert and Franziska

Kurt Singer
Alfred Wolfsohn
Alexander Nagler

Berlin, Germany
Villefranche, France
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Gurs Internment Camp, France
Auschwitz, Poland

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