Charlotte Salomon (1917 – 1943) was a German-Jewish artist born in Berlin. She is primarily remembered as the creator of an autobiographical series of paintings Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre?: A Song-play) consisting of 769 individual works painted between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, while Salomon was in hiding from the Nazis. In October 1943 she was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she and her unborn child were gassed to death soon after her arrival.
Charlotte Salomon came from a prosperous Berlin family. Her father, Albert Salomon was a surgeon; her mother, sensitive and troubled, committed suicide when Charlotte was nine. (This fact was concealed from her until she was twenty-two.) Charlotte was sixteen when the Nazis came to power in 1933. She simply refused to go to school, and stayed at home.
Extraordinarily, at a time when German universities were restricting their Jewish student quota to 1.5% of the student body, Charlotte Salomon succeeded in gaining admission to the Berlin Academy of Fine Art in 1936. She studied painting there for two years, even winning a prize on one occasion until it was withdrawn “on racial grounds”. But the antisemitic policy of Hitler’s Third Reich was ratcheting up the pressure on all institutions, and in the summer of 1938, her enrollment was annulled.
Charlotte’s father was briefly interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, and the Salomon family decided to leave Germany. Charlotte was sent to the South of France to live with her grandparents, already settled near Nice. Her relationship with the elderly couple was not easy, and during one row her grandmother revealed the truth to Charlotte about her mother’s suicide. Her grandmother’s bitterness and depression deepened after the outbreak of war in September 1939, until she also committed suicide.
Next, Charlotte and her grandfather were interned by the French authorities in a bleak camp in the Pyrenees called Gurs. Released on account of her grandfather’s infirmity, the two of them returned to Nice and there – at the beginning of 1941 – Charlotte Salomon commenced the great work that would outlive her short life.
Charlotte Salomon began her extraordinary series of 769 paintings – entitled Life? or Theatre? – by stating that she was driven by “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual”.
In the space of two years, she painted over a thousand gouaches, working with feverish intensity. She edited the paintings, re-arranged them, and added texts, captions, and overlays. She had a habit of humming songs to herself while painting.
The entire work was a slightly fantastic autobiography preserving the main events of her life – her mother’s death, studying art in the shadow of the Third Reich, her relationship with her grandparents – but altering the names and employing a strong element of fantasy. Charlotte also added notes about appropriate music to increase the dramatic effect, and she called Life? or Theatre? a ‘Singespiel’ or lyrical drama.
In 1943, as the Nazis intensified their search for Jews living in the South of France, she handed the work to a trusted friend with the words, “Keep this safe, it is my whole life.”
By September 1943, Charlotte Salomon had married another German Jewish refugee, Alexander Nagler. The two of them were dragged from their house and transported by rail from Nice to the Nazi ‘processing centre’ at Drancy near Paris. By now, Charlotte Salomon was five months pregnant. She was transported to Auschwitz on 7 October 1943 and was probably gassed on the same day that she arrived there (October 10).
Life? or Theater? (Leben? oder Theater?)
Charlotte was a reserved person whose work reflects her experiences from babyhood through to young adulthood. What she had kept concealed in her public life, she presented without disguise and without indulgence in her painting, such as her relationship with her stepmother Paulinka Bimbam. She also covers her relationship with Amadeus Daberlohn extensively, as well as her vexation with her Knarre (Grünwald) grandparents. In the final part of the work she is alone and works uninterrupted, humming as she painted.
This series of gouaches is an extraordinary and unique document. In great detail it tells the story of Salomon’s family and friends, her own internal life, the political background, and her obsessive love affair. Salomon had artistic training and her household was highly cultured. The way she tells her story is full of tragedy, but the telling also reveals Salomon’s sly humour and wit. The series starts out with highly detailed and multi-layered images of the life and relationship between her mother and father. As the story unfolds the style gets broader and more expressionistic. The last ‘chapters’ are almost violent in their expression, as if Salomon is aware of her impending fate and can hardly wait to write and paint the details of her story as the Gestapo close in on her life.
A large part of Life? or Theater? is about her obsession with ‘Amadeus Daberlohn’, a voice teacher she met through her stepmother ‘Paulinka Bimbam’ (Salomon gives all her characters humorous, often punning, pseudonyms). These sections are honest and compelling accounts of her passionate relationship with Alfred Wolfsohn – the one person who took her artistic work seriously. It is not possible to know if Salomon’s version of her relationship with Wolfsohn corresponds with reality, but he was undoubtedly her first love.
In 1943, when she was 26, Charlotte Salomon gave her collection of paintings to Dr. Moridis, a trusted friend who had treated her grandmother’s depression.
Life? or Theater? is intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian ‘total work of art’ within the tradition of the ambitious nineteenth century German idea to fuse poetry, music and the visual arts. Yet Salomon’s work is a reversal of that tradition which was intended to be the ultimate manifestation of Germanic culture – instead it is a deeply moving and personal masterpiece, created by a ‘young woman who belonged to a supposedly alien race and who was therefore held not to even have a right to exist, let alone a place in society.’
Salomon entitled her work, Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singespiel. Singspiel is a German music form resembling “operetta” in some respects, although actors’ parts are often spoken over, rather than sung with the music. Music provides the backdrop for the play-form which is most often comical in nature, tragedy being a less-frequent motif. Romantic interest nearly always plays a prominent part. Singspiel was considered less elevated than opera proper, often being written in the vernacular (German or French). Note that Salomon’s spelling, “Singespiel”, is off by an ‘e’, but whether this was intentional of not is unclear. While celebrated composers such as Bach and Hiller are known to have worked in the form, Singspiel often introduced folksongs, marches and narrative songs into its repertoire. The plays were usually performed by traveling troupes and not necessarily by established companies within metropolitan centers. By the early twentieth century, at the time of Salomon’s appropriation of the form into her work, the Singspiel had ceased to be an active category of musical performance anywhere. Thus, Life? or Theater? is not only a series of paintings. It includes a script in the form of words that are either themselves in the form of paintings, written into the paintings, or presented as overlays to the images. It also has a ‘soundtrack’ – music chosen by Salomon that reinforces her stories. These range from Nazi marching songs to Schubert lieder and extracts from the music of Mozart and Mahler. The work is operatic in scale, highly modern in execution, unique in its form, and has an enduring power.
The paintings that make up Life? or Theater? began to be exhibited in the 1960s only, the first book with 80 reproductions was published in 1963, and drew comparisons with the story of Anne Frank. Marc Chagall was shown the paintings and was impressed. In 1971 the collection was placed in the care of the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam. In 1981 the Museum presented 250 scenes in narrative sequence, and critics began to comment on the work. An exhibition at the London Royal Academy in 1998 was an unexpected sensation, helped by the publication of a complete catalogue. The work is still relatively little known, in part because Salomon’s work doesn’t appear on the international art market, as the whole archive belongs to the protective Charlotte Salomon Foundation based at the Joods Historisch Museum. The art historian Griselda Pollock dedicated to Charlotte Salomon a chapter in her Virtual Feminist Museum, analysing her work in terms of contemporary art, Jewish history and cultural theory.
There have been several other exhibitions of parts of Life? or Theater?, and a number of films and plays made about Charlotte Salomon’s life, notably Company of Angels by the UK theatre company Horse and Bamboo Theatre and in 1981, Dutch director Frans Weisz released a feature film based on her life, with the Austrian actress Birgit Doll playing the artist and Daberlohn played by Derek Jacobi. In 2011 he made a documentary revealing the contents of her last letter to Wolfsohn.
Lotte’s Journey, a play by Candida Cave was performed at New End Theatre Hampstead in October/November 2007.
You’re right, Charlotte, we have no excuses! Fascinating story, thank you!
I’m so humbled by the stories of these women who worked to express themselves and life their lives in the most desperate and challenging of circumstances.