Refabricating the Past

Charlotte Salomon: ‘Life? or Theatre?’ A Selection of 450 Gouaches by Judith Belinfante and Evelyn Benesch, Taschen, November 2017

Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock, Yale, March 2018


‘Take good care of it; it is my entire life.’ This was the entreaty of Charlotte Salomon to her friend as she handed him a package containing hundreds of her paintings. Five months later in 1943, Salomon, only 26 years old, her husband, and their five-month-old unborn child, were murdered upon arrival at Auschwitz.
Life? or Theatre?, the vast image-music-text artwork she left behind is, however, done an injustice if interpreted as a tragic story told by a victim of the Holocaust; nor is it pure autobiography by any means. It is, in the artist’s words, ‘something wildly unusual’.

In many of the films made about Charlotte Salomon and her monumental artwork, Life? or Theatre?, made from 1940-42, the artist and the artwork have been fused into an amorphous whole. As a German-Jewish artist working during the rise of National Socialism, she has often been unjustly diminished to no more than a Holocaust victim – a reduction that Judith Belinfante is quick to dismiss. Given the emotional intensity that drove the creative process, it is unsurprising that Salomon felt Life? or Theatre? to be her ‘entire life’, but it is much more than that; the obsession with biography risks limiting the artwork itself to a kind of artful diary. Instead, through a group portrait of the important people in her life, Salomon develops an interplay between memory-mediated fact and fiction, making Life? or Theatre? expansively complex and indefinable. Griselda Pollock draws attention to the plausible suggestion that we may be drawn to pre-judgement given our knowledge of the ‘tragedy of the creator’s short existence’. But how should this affect and inform our reading?

Made up of 784 paintings on paper, Life? or Theatre? is a single artwork which swings between multiple painterly modes, though all painted in gouache, an opaque watercolour. Several hundred sheets are accompanied by overlaid or integrated words of commentary or dialogue, and musical cues or melodies in which a text should be sung or hummed while viewing the paintings. This semi-theatrical form is heightened by a title page and character list, and its structure of three main parts: a Prelude, Main Section, and Epilogue. When the war was finally over, Salomon’s father and stepmother travelled to find traces of their murdered daughter. What they found was the brown package of hundreds of gouache paintings in the care of Ottilie Moore, Salomon’s friend and patron; upon her own return to France, Moore had received them from the village doctor who had kept the works safe from discovery by the authorities. The previously unseen work began to be archived in the late 1940s and then exhibited in 1960, first in Amsterdam before touring; it was then published in 1963 in Dutch, German, English and Italian editions.

Among the swathes of attention given to Life? or Theatre? in recent years (exhibitions, documentaries, a ballet) are several books. Charlotte Salomon: ‘Life? or Theatre?’ A Selection of 450 Gouaches, with essays by Judith Belinfante and Evelyn Benesch, reproduces not the entire artwork but a rich selection of the 784 gouache paintings and their accompanying texts. The book’s subtitle ‘Painting for her Life: Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich’ suggests an oddly dogmatic reading of the work; a tale of Salomon’s creative strength triumphing over the destructive forces that continually threatened her. But a blurb reminds the reader that this artwork ‘spans all facets of her existence’, from the suicides of nearly all her close female relatives, her childhood and education, her relationship with singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn to her exile to France in 1939. It claims this ‘unrivalled magnum opus’ to be a ‘triumph of personal truth and individual expression’. And indeed it is, but it is Griselda Pollock’s book, Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, which attests to this most fully, offering a slow, thorough exploration of the work, and trying to avoid falling back too heavily on the various ways in which an art historian might try to frame the work; through feminist/Jewish and cultural historical lenses in particular. However, Pollock does not forget to draw our attention to the troubling mainstream modes of reading art and its histories that have excluded women, not merely by omission in the canon but also by reducing their creative practices to the level of personal experience, diaristic confession, and uncritical autobiography.

Life? or Theatre? does not follow a narrative in the linear sense of the word, instead swimming through and around a multiplicity of complex temporalities and subject positions. In the ‘Programme’, Salomon lists the ‘performers’ that appear in her ‘play’ in the bold painted capitals that become characteristic of the text in the artwork. These performers include the ‘married couple’ that represent her grandparents, renamed Dr and Mrs Knarre (which roughly translates as the ‘moaners’); there are the almost onomatopoeic Dr Singsang and Professor Klingklang; her mother Franzisca and aunt Charlotte keep their first names, though the girl artist is Charlotte Kann, not the author herself but an ‘avatar’. The voice of the painted text is, again, not Salomon but a third-person register that shifts from ironic commentator to a chorus of voices.

While Salomon’s work may be autobiographical in some senses, she was reflecting upon and fabricating in various measures both her ‘entire life’ and that of others. Although unquestionably affected by the upheaval of the time that she lived through, the story told in Life? or Theatre? is not limited to its historical context. As her world began to fall around her, Pollock suggests that she was doing far more than recording her life: she was creating a ‘theatre of memory’. This imaginative act was a way to recall those she had lost (her aunt, mother, and grandmother); bringing them once again into existence. Through the invention of memories she is able to ask: why did you, or do you, die? And its aside: can I choose not to die? What she is ultimately exploring, Pollock feels, is the conditions of choosing to live. This she learned in part from her time spent in Berlin with Wolfsohn. A survivor of the trenches in the First World War, Wolfsohn suffered shell shock in the form of persistent auditory hallucinations of screaming soldiers, and grappled with this psychological trauma through studying the human voice and its connection to death, the human soul, and artistic expression. He was a great encouragement to Salomon as she strived to become an artist and found her own means of artistic catharsis through reliving or imagining childhood and recent memories, and those that she had been told.

Salomon had some brief artistic training at a Berlin art school where she was happy despite the growing anti-Semitic hostilities around her. Belinfante explains that as a solemn, taciturn young woman, ‘her manner (unappealing as it was to men) had been one of the factors in her favour’ in her provisional acceptance to the art school, despite her Jewishness, as she was regarded as ‘posing no danger to Aryans’. Despite its brevity, this training was indisputably a critical period in Salomon’s life, as the uncategorisable style in which she paints suggests exposure to a considerable array of modern art, from Munch, Kollwitz, and Van Gogh, to Chagall, Matisse and Dufy. The hybridity of form in her image-music-text artwork must also draw on knowledge of cinema and its evolution from silent to sound, for she references German Expressionist films as well as inserting musical cues to accompany the visual narrative. This also draws on the opera, Weimar cabaret and fascist anthems to which she would have been exposed throughout the 1930s in Berlin. The influence of modernist painting and cinema can be seen especially in the Main Section. While many of the paintings in the Prelude are composed in the horizontal rows used in graphic novels or comic strips, the Main Section shifts into scenes of less minute detail and the style becomes more painterly; Evelyn Benesch notes its ‘broader brushstrokes and sketchy contours’. In a scene of the Kristallnacht, events are depicted in a single space. Rather than unfolding graphically and repetitively, Salomon uses cinematic framing to create a pictorial space in which small, anonymous figures are almost in motion among the mayhem of attacks, arson and arrests. As Pollock suggests, we act as both a reader and a viewer, caught between the pictorial, cinematic and textual elements in each of the paintings.

Kristallnacht by Charlotte Salomon

The Kristallnacht was also central to her personal life: that night, her father was arrested and interned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp for some months. Upon his release, he and Salomon’s stepmother arranged for the 21-year-old Charlotte to leave Berlin almost immediately, to join her grandparents in the currently unoccupied South of France. Albert Salomon was too unwell to travel after the period of internment, so when Charlotte left Berlin, she travelled alone. She would never see her father or stepmother again. But was during this first year in France that Salomon’s work began to flourish, a creative spell enabled by the state of temporary safety and relaxation found in her new life abroad. Her relationship with her grandfather, however, became increasingly strained as he refused to support her need to paint. This worsened irreparably when in 1939, following the outbreak of the Second World War, her grandmother fell into a terrible depression, and after a failed attempt to hang herself was cared for by Charlotte. Charlotte’s grief at the event was intensified by only then learning that at eight years old she had lost her mother not to influenza as she had been told, but to suicide. In a dreadful event portrayed over two paintings, her grandmother’s second attempt to kill herself is this time successful, Charlotte looking on desperately. Could she avoid what seemed to be her fate?

After this terrible event, Charlotte and her grandfather were caught up in the increasing severity of the occupying authorities and interned at the nearby concentration camp in Gurs for two weeks. This period is not depicted in the paintings until their return when her grandfather who, unwell and slumped into a debilitating melancholy, seemingly provoked Charlotte by claiming that she too would kill herself. In one of the final paintings in the Epilogue, Charlotte sits before her grandfather saying, ‘You know, Grandpa, I have the feeling as if one has to put the whole world together again’, to which he replies: ‘Now conclusively take your own life, so this babble finally stops’. Belinfante appears to suggest that his words are not necessarily an act of cruelty, rather that ‘in order to, paradoxically, be free of his greatest fear, that his granddaughter too would end up killing herself’, he was inadvertently driving Charlotte towards suicide.

In the final image of Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte sits before a deep expanse of ocean, her back turned, kneeling before paper and a paintbrush. The accompanying text reveals Charlotte’s response to a growing sense of desperation and need for solitude to create the work that would act as a form of therapy:

She had to vanish for a time from the human surface and make every sacrifice to create her world anew out of the depths.

And from that came:

The Life or the Theatre???

Life or Theatre?

This also suggests a cyclical motion in the text: the figure, the fictional Charlotte, seems to be poised to begin painting Life? or Theatre? on a translucent page, the blue of the ocean visible through it. The place where she made Life? or Theatre? is evident in the painted ultramarine blue sea and sky, and the grey and red-bronze of the landscape that are the archetypal colours of the Côte d’Azur, with echoes of Matisse, Cezanne and Dufy. This is a ‘luminous geography’, in Pollock’s words, but one that is clouded by Salomon’s looming fate that we cannot help but think of: Salomon depicts Charlotte as choosing life, which for the artist herself will soon be prematurely and horrifyingly terminated.

On the figure’s back, however, the words ‘leben oder theater’ are painted. There, no question marks remain. Has she – the character but also perhaps the artist – found her answers, and some semblance of peace? The possible meaning of ‘theatre’ seems to shift from initially being a ‘form in which her emotions can be securely expressed’, as it is in the Prelude, to a state of unapologetic escapism which Salomon would appear to vehemently criticise: if one cannot recognise that humans are capable of inflicting mass destruction and annihilation of human culture and civilisation, then one is living in a ‘theatre’. Life? or Theatre? is therefore about far more than a blurring of fiction and reality: this act of merging is a way of refabricating lost lives, and forging her own sense of self, both as a woman and as an artist.