In July 1940 Charlotte Salomon at the age of 23 began to write and paint her autobiographical Life Or Theater?. We know the end—for which we have no text. Working feverishly in the South of France where, fleeing the Nazis, she had been sent from Berlin to her grandparents, she delivered it two years later to the village doctor in Villefranche-sur-Mer before the Nazis came for her. She died soon after, presumably at Auschwitz in 1943. Recovered by her father and stepmother, the two packages containing the 769 gouaches plus tissue sheets of accompanying script, preliminary studies, and unused compositions were given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam in 1971, where they were catalogued and subsequently exhibited. Now we can gaze at and read the absorbing account of Charlotte’s brief, unhappy life, created at white heat to get it all down, “between heaven and earth beyond our era in the year 1 of the new salvation.”
She owes her salvation to Alfred Wolfsohn whom she calls Amadeus Daberlohn, a man twice her age, given to bouts of mystical rhetoric, whom she loved and with whom she had an affair before she left Berlin, whose mélange of ideas on love, death, and suffering she reclaimed in an hour of desperation. They committed her to life, despite wartime upheaval and the advancing Nazi terror. It was not history she sought to survive, there was not much she could do about that, but the judgment of madness and death she felt she was under through her shocking family past—a past unknown to her and revealed by her grandfather when her grandmother, despondent over the Nazis, tried to kill herself. From him she learned that her mother, the aunt after whom she was named, and her grandmother’s entire family had killed themselves.
In reviewing the book for The Nation (Nov. 21, 1981) Leslie Hazelton, citing the “commercialization of the Holocaust” took offense at “coffee table books” like Life or Theater? as glossing it up for sentimental middle-class consumption. It is an extravaganza of book publishing, with a grander facsimile edition contemplated for the future; a film has been made and more to come. At $75 who but the middle class can afford it? It is off-putting; another book on the Holocaust? I admit I had to gird myself to open Charlotte Salomon’s book. But the reviewer misses the point.
For Charlotte the threat of extinction loomed from within. The same held true for her grandmother, whose lifelong battle against suicide ended in a leap out the window, in spite of Charlotte’s efforts to save her. It is an affront to the human spirit to think it clear, as the Nation reviewer asserted, that she might have killed herself if the Nazis hadn’t saved her the trouble—even those decrying tastlessness can be tasteless. Outrage at placing the Holocaust in an “esthetic framework” leads to fuzzy notions which reveal the sentimentality the reviewer deplores and, paradoxically, makes the reviewer grossly unsympathetic to Charlotte and her book “which never would have been published if not for Auschwitz.”
What Charlotte calls her strange creation is difficult to classify from the viewpoint of art or literature. Though Charlotte worked spontaneously, doing one or more paintings a day, there are powerful images of pure painting which stand outside narrative and dramatic purposes. Still a student, she reveals her influences: German contemporaries, influenced by Van Gogh, Munch, the French postimpressionists. A number of styles are pressed into service hastily, from fine art to “pop”—magazine, advertising, cartoons— and, after the book’s prelude, a comic-strip style incorporating text and image predominates. In re-creating her world, going back in the past to before she was born, she brings a painter’s eye to what objects suggest to her, a novelist’s grasp in her observations of people, subtleties of feeling and insight, unsentimental and ironic. She was both intellectual and poetic; her ideas, too complicated for visual expression alone, sought a rhythmic design of song, words, color.
The art of her time, German Expressionism, in ascribing emotional content to color realized the affinity between painting and music. “Ein Singspiel” she calls Life or Theater?—“a creation to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting by the sea. He is painting. A tune suddenly enters his mind. As he starts to hum it he notices that the tune exactly matches what he is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in his head, and he starts to sing the tune with his own words over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete.” Her matching tunes are taken from musical scores; Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, Bizet’s Carmen, Weber’s Der Freischutz, Bach and Schubert songs.
Charlotte came of a German-Jewish middle-class cultured family: her grandfather was a doctor, her father a surgeon, her grandmother wrote poetry. The prelude opens on her 18year-old Aunt Charlotte throwing herself into the river. As both a narrative and psychological device, Charlotte uses multiple images on the page, sequential images or figures, gestures and actions. Tracking the dark figure of the aunt from the stair of her house to the final act, she opposes the downward flow of her repeated figure with a diminished winding of trees, lampposts, and people. Franziska, Charlotte’s mother, and Albert, her father, met in World War I at the front, where she had volunteered as a nurse. They were married in 1916, and Charlotte was born in 1917. All is raptly detailed: hospital, wedding party, her grandparents’ and parents’ apartments, the nursery—”the high white baby carriage containing the new Charlotte’s tiny head herself.”
“Franziska was of a somewhat sentimental disposition,” the text states, as though in her heart she cannot forgive the lies of her mother, “who often took the child to bed with her to tell her of her yearning to be an angel, promising to send her letters.” She was nine when her mother leapt to her death from a fourth-floor window. She was brought up believing her mother had died of influenza. In an understated drawing of the collapsed body against bright color, she dramatizes the body’s struggle to live in a single, vertically extended, turned-about leg, like a drowning person’s arm the last to go under. Hase, who played the guitar and encouraged Charlotte’s love of drawing, interrupted the succession of hated governesses; she was displaced by the adored Paulinka, a much-admired singer whom her father, a distant man immersed in his books and surgery, married four unhappy years after her mother’s death.
The Singspiel rises to its true farce-like form when Daberlohn (Wolfsohn) “prophet of song, enters to the tune of the Toreador’s Song from Carmen.” His ideas, picked off” from the mystical, neo-Romantic, Nietzschean, Dostoevskian currents coursing through German art and literature between the two wars, gathered disciples. His most original idea was the parallel between soul and voice, the limitations of the voice reflecting those of the soul: a notion which grew out of his experience as an 18-year-old stretcher-bearer in the First World War, when, buried for several days beneath the bodies of dead soldiers, despite loss of memory, he retained the sound dying soldiers made. Attractive to women, he made love to Charlotte’s plump middle-aged stepmother, and to Charlotte who, fascinated by him, at the same time was alert to the ironies between his ideas and behavior. She counterpoints his long rambles through art and life with images obsessed and profuse as his words: page after page of captured restless poses and gestures, dematerialized bodies, a submerged swimming school of Daberlohns; or, by the score, his head, as if rubber-stamped. Sly and playful, Charlotte begins an episode: “In the middle of his best reflections he remembers he promised to take her boating.” Sustaining his visionary mood, he spouts “thoughts intensified by the thunderstorm” as they row, float, make love: an Adam and a gawky Eve embracing, “he endeavors to implant something of himself into her—having exerted himself he feels a sense of satisfaction,”
Charlotte’s book may be said to be an eccentric variant among notebooks and journals toward which women artists, encountering the discouragement reserved for women, are urged. As Marie Bashkirtseff, who died at 24, Paula Modersohn-Becker, dead at 31, Käthe Kollwitz, Dora Carrington, and other women artists writing, Charlotte echoes the need for art as her personal salvation. Daberlohn supplied her with support and idealistic ideas of suffering and self-surrender. In the epilogue’s final pages she recalls the painting “Death and the Maiden” she gave him and his words: “That’s the two of us.” That image merges with another, one of Daberlohn “like so many women at the window, so full of dreams, so full of longing,” into a vision of resurrection, she would, like him, return from the dead.
Looking at Charlotte’s pictures we see their contamination by Nazi-forbidden “degenerate” art. In its name Grosz, Klee, Beckmann, and hundreds fled Germany. Nolde, who stayed, though in sympathy with Nazi racial policies if not their practice, worked in secret on tiny pieces of paper, strange little “unpainted pictures,” a few recalling Charlotte’s. Who can say, had she survived, whether her “degenerate” art would have attained their level? As an achievement of the imagination and of the human will, Life or Theater? compellingly attests to what Charlotte Salomon might have been.