Thursday, December 18, 2008

Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943)
Gouache on Paper

Charlotte (Part 1)

Charlotte Salomon grew up in Berlin before the Second World War. After her mother died, when Charlotte was nine years old, her father married an opera singer who filled the household with music and cultured friends. As the Nazis rose to power, life became increasingly difficult. Charlotte was removed from school, her father was incarcerated for a time and their business and general activities were restricted to only Jewish associations. Charlotte studied art and, though discouraged by her teachers for lack of talent, continued to work on developing her paintings. An accompanist and vocal coach with a dramatically unusual philosophy on art and life entered the household to work with Charlotte's step-mother. The young Charlotte fell under his spell and was profoundly influenced by his encouragement and ideas until the end of her life.

After Kristallnacht, when living became too dangerous in Berlin, Charlotte was sent to live with her grandparents at a villa in Villefranche-sur-mer in the south of France. There, her grandmother became despondent and, though Charlotte tried to help, her grandmother committed suicide by jumping from a window. Afterwards, her grandfather explained that Charlotte's mother, Charlotte's great-grandmother, and her namesake, Aunt Charlotte had all committed suicide as well. At this point, Charlotte — feeling the undertow of despair and the option of suicide for herself — realized that she could go the way of the women in her family before her, or do something completely unique. Charlotte chose life.

Leben? oder Theater? Ein singespiel

Charlotte immediately set to work on Life? or Theater? A play with music. Nothing in the history of art, before or since, is anything remotely like this incredible piece of art. Day in, day out, with a fervor that must have come from intuitive knowledge that she had very little time to work, Charlotte created the story of her life in paintings and words (and music that has never been properly added). Beginning with her parents' first meeting, through her birth, childhood, and the increasingly complex relationships and emotions of a sensitive young artist coming of age during unthinkable drama and danger in the world at large, to her last entries that come so fast and furious it seems as though she barely has time to put brush to paper. This is the ultimate portrait of the artist as a young girl. There are 1,325 paintings and sheets of tracing paper, all of a uniform size: 32.5 x 25 cm (12.8 in x 9.8 in).

When Charlotte knew that her time was near, she brought two wrapped packages of gouache paintings to an acquaintance, a doctor in Villefranche, and said "Will you take good care of this? 'C'est toute ma vie.'"

Even more than a portrait of the artist as a young girl at a unique historic moment, this is a work of exceptional optimism. Last night, I was reading some of the last words my friend Walter Gabrielson wrote in the Epilogue to his autobiography:
"I realize that much of the life of the artist is maintaining optimism. The outer world wants security and repetition and predictability. In order to stay alive you have to not only change but also kick over the traces and do something outlandish once in a while..."
And so it is with the work of Charlotte Salomon.

The only way to really experience this work is to sit down with the book of paintings and take the time to look at them and read the text. It helps to have the background not only of the real circumstances of Charlotte's life but also of the real people behind the characters in the work including her father, her step-mother, Paula Salomon-Lindberg, and Alfred Wolfsohn, the influential voice coach. It also helps if you can watch Charlotte, the film that Frans Weisz made with the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg.

Unfortunately, the most complete book of Life? or Theater? published in 1981 by Gary Schwartz in The Netherlands, with an English translation by Leila Vennewitz published that same year by The Viking Press is long out of print. Frans's film is virtually non-existent in the US though the Boston MFA Film program has shown a print on a number of occasions including during the MFA 2000 exhibit of her work. There was a thick, small format paperback edition of Life? or Theater? published in conjunction with that exhibit that now goes for an exorbitant sum on Amazon.

Short of the books and the film, the best place to go is to the website of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam which houses the collection of Charlotte's paintings, although I can't seem to make out what sort of order they follow in the web presentation.

There are two reasons that I took the time in my previous post on Charlotte to describe the circumstances through which I learned about Charlottte and her work.

The first reason is that I had the great fortune and privilege of discovering Charlotte through a personal relationship with Frans Weisz and his film about her. In 1975, Frans and Judith Herzberg set out to gather background information in order to make a film about her. In the process, they interviewed Charlotte's father at the very end of his life, her step-mother, an associate of Alfred Wolfsohn's who possessed papers in which he described Charlotte, the wife of the doctor to whom Charlotte entrusted her work and others who had known her. They also discovered additional paintings that had beenm treasured over the years by someone in Villefranche. They walked around the grounds of the Villa where Charlotte spent her final years. It is Judith Herzberg's insightful introduction that graces the beginning of the vastly important Gary Schwartz and Viking publication Charlotte, and, to a large degree, it is because of the dedication of Frans Weisz and Judith Herzberg that attention was brought to Charlotte Salomon and her work.

So, there I was at the age of 26, just coming into flower myself as an artist and songwriter — discovering Charlotte Salomon at the same age at which she died. Not having any deep knowledge of the Holocaust, and, to be fair, because I was an artist myself, I saw Charlotte Salomon as an artist first. No matter what her religion or circumstances, Charlotte Salomon would have been an artist anyway.

Which brings me to the second reason I set this post up as I did. It seems that, in the intervening years, Charlotte's work has been appropriated by Holocaust studies. If this is true, and not just my mistaken perspective, it is understandable but regrettable. It seems that she has been defined by her death rather than her life. The way in which the film clip is edited in my previous post on Charlotte is a perfect example.

It was most appropriate for her father to give her paintings to the Jewish Historical Museum. And although I think that she would have been an artist no matter what, there is no extricating her as a person or her work from the particular historic moment and her particular circumstance. Still, this piece of art — Leben? oder Theater? — is as important to the history of art as it is to Judaica. Charlotte's life and work is especially important to (I always hate to single us out) women in the history of art. Charlotte describes in exceptional ways, through the paintings and her words, the longing, the intensity and obsession, the raging fervor to create in the context of her sexual, social and emotional development and ultimately, her spiritual development. That may be what I perceive as the kernel of truth in this work. I think that's what bothers me so much when I perceive this work as cloistered within the context of the Holocaust.

The problem may be that the work is too complex to present in an economically feasible way. Ann Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning are easily presented in simple paperback book editions. Life? or Theater? cannot be.

I visited the Joods Historische Museum in Amsterdam in '97 or '98 and was very pleased to see some of the original gouaches displayed. The museum cannot possible exhibit all 1,325 paintings and drawings at one time, so they rotate pieces in and out of the exhibit space.

In 1996, I spent about two weeks making small watercolors along the Côte d'Azur and several days in Villefranche-sur-mer. It was much later that I remembered that this was where Charlotte painted. Sitting by these steps to the sea, I was not very far at all from where she created Life? or Theater?

It's a good question.

See my watercolors at Landscape into Art.

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