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Life in Pictures: Charlotte Salomon and her art beyond life tragedies

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the artist, whose life story could be studied in schools like the diary of Anne Frank. However, the biography of this Jewish girl from Berlin, who has lived only 26 years, is not meant for a fragile child’s psyche, since it seems to have absorbed all the horrors that can happen to a person: the early death of her mother, the ominous generational curse, unrequited love, and probable mental disorder; these are even the most easy things she had to endure. Nevertheless, she found her outlet in creativity, which gets its juice in tragedies, as is often the case. Within a few months, she has managed to create an extraordinary work of modern art three New York quarters long.

Five boxes of drawings from their deceased daughter

Two years after the end of World War II, Albert and Paula Salomon arrived to France to Albert’s daughter Charlotte who was hiding from the Nazis there. She did not survive by that time, but she left them a package of nearly 800 gouache pictures, which she managed to transfer to her confidant shortly before her death. The content of the package shocked the Salomons so much that they did not dare to show the drawings to anyone for a long time. After all, they were among the main subjects of the unusual series disclosing the history of their family, along with all the skeletons in the closet — and they had lots of them.

Albert Salomon with little Charlotte.
Photo: arte. it

In fact, the artwork of Charlotte Salomon is a graphic novel, a grand-scale narration in pictures with text notes. But in this case, things are more complicated, because the artist not only wrote thousands of words, but also suggested the musical accompaniment for the corresponding parts. The subtitle of the titanic work called "Life? or Theater?" says that this is ein Singspiel, something like an operetta in the German theater tradition, where the main action is interspersed with musical performances.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
From this point on, all the paintings are from the "Life? or Theater?" cycle by Charlotte Salomon, unless otherwise specified.
Charlotte’s father and stepmother ordered five mahogany boxes to store the unusual heritage for ten years. Apparently, the brilliant surgeon and the opera diva, who was known throughout Europe, could not but appreciate Charlotte’s artistic gift; and eventually they got tired of trying to hide the awl in a sack. In the early 1960s, the paintings were exhibited for the first time; in 1963, the first book with 80 reproductions of gouache paintings by Salomon was published. According to some reports, Marc Chagall was amazed to see them (while his work, in turn, inspired Charlotte herself, along with the paintings by Van Gogh, Munch and Kokoshka).
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

Suicide or something wildly unusual

Year 1942. In the small hotel room in the French town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Charlotte obsessively works on creating paintings, almost without breaks for food or sleep. She paints with gouache on paper in 32.5×25 cm landscape format, a bit larger than the modern A4 standard. Her work speed can be called maniacal; this medical term denotes one of the phases of bipolar disorder course.
Charlotte Salomon. The cover sheet of the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

The cover sheet with the title Life? or Theater? and the monogram of the artist under it, consisting of the letters C and S (Charlotte Salomon’s initials).

She wrote over 1,500 pages in several months: 1,299 drawings, 340 translucent sheets with texts to overlay on the corresponding pictures, also, instructions with classical pieces for musical accompaniment. In the end, Charlotte selected 769 gouache paintings, put ordinal numbers on them, drew the cover sheet for her work and took them to the family friend Dr. Moridis, asking him to keep them safe and saying, "It is my whole life."
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

Fortunately, Charlotte managed to do this before she was sent to the gas chamber, soon after arriving in Auschwitz, at the age of 26. She married shortly before, and she was not fit for hard work because of the sixth month of pregnancy, thus there was no reason to leave her alive.

Tony Bentley of the American weekly New Yorker estimated that if you put all the paintings from the "Life? or Theater?" series in a row, you would get a line three New York quarters long, and the accompanying text consisted of 32 thousand words. What pushed the artist to perform such an ambitious feat in such a short period of time?
The instinct of self-preservation. Shortly before that, her grandfather Grünwald revealed her a terrible family secret, which was hidden from her throughout her life. Eight of her closest relatives took their lives. Salomon`s mother was among them; she was seriously upset about the suicide of her elder sister, who was 18 when she left the house at night, walked a dozen kilometers and drowned in the river. Her name was Charlotte, and the future artist was given a name in her honour, despite the objections of other family members.
Charlotte Salomon with her grandparents Grunwalds.
Photo: vilanova. cat
The reason for the grandfather’s revelation was the suicide of his wife, Charlotte’s grandmother. She blamed herself for the premature death of her two daughters, and the war increased her deep depression, so she made two attempts to join her daughters, and the second one was successful. Charlotte was a very impressionable girl, therefore such message about her family doom almost killed her: she began to think about whether she should commit suicide as well, before the "family curse" gets to her.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

Art has become her way out of the woods. Dr. Moridis, who treated Grandma Salomon for depression, advised Charlotte to begin painting, stating that she had a choice, "whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual".

Mood swings

"My life began when my grandmother decided to take hers, when I found out that my mother’s whole family did the same thing, when I found out that I am the only one surviving, and when I felt the same inclination deep inside of me, craving for despair and death," the artist wrote to her father about the events of that time. Then she took up her brush with the intention to realize an ambitious plan of creating an autobiographical novel in pictures.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Although it was the beginning of her life as a creator, she was not an amateur in art, and her seemingly naive creativity is based on a serious theoretical basis and remarkable talent, which was awarded even while studying at the School of Arts. There she was carried away by works of contemporary Expressionists. An utterance by her compatriot Emil Nolde sank into her mind, "I love those pictures that seem to have painted themselves."
Emil Nolde. Young couple
Emil Nolde. Woman
  • Emil Nolde. Young Couple, 1935
  • Emil Nolde. Woman, 1920
Salomon is not the direct heiress of Nolde’s painting technique, as her own style is too original for this. However, a searching look can find some continuity in the manner of painting lines and colors.
The American beatnik writer Jack Kerouac boosted his creativity with pharmaceutical stimulants and writing down his stream of consciousness all night long (he used rolled paper lest he should waste time by replacing the filled sheets in his typewriter or frighten off his inspiration). By the same token, Charlotte drew gouaches, one by one.

Except that she did not need any additional stimulants. The owner of the hotel, where she worked, was surprised that she could never find the artist sleeping or doing anything else than drawing. However, such an obsession may have a medical justification: the periods of increased capacity for work, almost without a break for sleep, and enthusiasm for grand-scale projects that seem gigantomania to others, may bespeak the condition formerly known as manic-depressive psychosis. Now it is a more politically correct diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder.

This disease could also explain the matrilineal "generational curse". Firstly, according to statistics, a high percentage of such patients are prone to suicide, and many of them carry out this tendency. Secondly, it is believed that the disease can be inherited and damage several members of the same family. Thirdly, the bestseller novel "Charlotte" by French writer David Foenkinos based on the biography of the artist and written in the bizarre blank verse manner, describes the mood swings of her mother, which are rather similar to the symptoms of the MDP.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

"Her mother shuts herself up for weeks at a time.
Then, suddenly, the social demon possesses her.
Charlotte enjoys these transformations.
She prefers anything to apathy.
A deluge is better than a draught.
But the drought returns now.
The rain of life ceases as abruptly as it started.
And once again, Franziska lies in bed, exhausted by nothing.
Lost in contemplation of some other world at the far end of her room."

Some experts note that patients with BAD (especially women) may prefer strident bright psychedelic colors. The colours of Charlotte’s paintings can hardly be considered another evidence of the disease, but it’s also not to be overlooked.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
It is specific that very many artists who are no strangers to Expressionism, its origins or branches (Post-Impressionism
"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Gauguin asked when naming his famous painting. Well, the answers were given by the world renowned artists, who once have determined the style. Read more
or Abstract Expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
, for example), were patients of psychiatric hospitals or suffered from depression (Munch, Van Gogh, Pollock, Rothko and others). According to some art critics (and the artists themselves), their individual psychic properties were integral to their talent.

Total Recall

One way or another, the fragile careworn girl with her vicissitudes concealed a huge potential. She was not only a talented painter: her gouaches of the "Life? or Theater?" series demonstrate her gift for narrative and playwriting, her sharp mind and ability to notice and lampoon the social vices and hostages to fortune.

The narrative obeys the dramaturgy laws. It consists of the prologue, the main action and the epilogue, and the dramatic effect is based on opposition and contrasts. Scary events are accompanied by comic comments; the most tragic moments are shown with bright colours and moving words.
These pages most clearly demonstrate what "Life? or Theater?" by Charlotte Salomon really is. The gouache on the left is devoted to an important and painful memory associated with her mother Franziska. During another depression period (apparently when she was thinking about death as the only possible way out), she promised her daughter that she would bring her a letter from the sky, where she would write, how she lived there. After the mother’s suicide (Charlotte was told that flu took her away), the girl waited for the promised letter every day. When she realized that there would be no letters and her mother cheated, it was a painful blow, which hit her even more than mother’s death. On the second sheet of translucent paper, there is a text with the speech of Franziska, "It's much better in the sky than on this earth. And when your mommy becomes an angel, she will go down and bring you a rabbit and a letter, in which she will tell you how things stand in heaven."

And this is how it looks when the gouache is covered with the superimposing text — two pictures form the third one.

Irony and sarcasm were the sheet anchor that helped Charlotte not lose her mind in rethinking her whole life after her grandfather’s words about what she really was. She gives pseudonyms to the real characters of her life, and they sound comical even without translation. Her adorable stepmother Paula became Paulinka Bimbam, the stepmother’s singing teacher and Charlotte’s first love Alfred Wolfsohn was named Amadeus Daberlohn. The couple of her grandparents has received the terrible name Knarre.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
  • Charlotte was crazy about her stepmother, she made her portrait unusually warm and bright, just as children usually draw their mothers.
  • Love scene with Alfred-Amadeus: "Aren't you afraid of me? I'm a stranger to you. - I love you."
It was her family — mother, father, and little Charlotte, who was spoken in the third person — who received the pseudonym Kann (originating from the German verb kann meaning "can"). As if she wanted to oppose it to all the circumstances that were supposed to break her, but only made her stronger.
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"

The first part of the cycle consists of the colourful imprints of Charlotte’s memories from her carefree childhood, spent with her family, the governesses, the neighbours in the prestigious Berlin district of Charlottenburg, and the people of quality who visited the home of her father, a respected surgeon and a professor at the University of Berlin, and the world’s first specialist to diagnose breast cancer from a roentgenogram.

Seven hundred sheets follow the inexorable evolution of the reality in the paintings of Salomon: from childish innocence to a sober, meaningful view of life. The deeper goes the story, the more expressive are the drawings, and the final works are painted with violent, impetuous strokes.
On the pages, there appear disturbing swastikas and crowds of distraught people flooding the streets during the infamous Kristallnacht.

Murder? Or artistic hyperbole?

In 1981, the Dutch film director Frans Weisz released a feature film based on her life, entitled "Charlotte". A few years before that, a time bomb had been laid down. The stepmother of the artist gave the director several pages from the "Confession" by Charlotte, which she addressed to her beloved Alfred. She described the circumstances of the "Life? or Theater?" series creation. The disclosure of the content written with watercolor in sprawling handwriting, was prohibited for several decades.

The bomb exploded in 2011, after the death of Paula Salomon-Lindberg, when Weisz has made another film about Charlotte, a documentary this time. It revealed the facts that completely changed the idea of what she had to endure in addition to the already known family tragedies, several years of persecution during the war, and death in the concentration camp.
A still image from "Charlotte" movie, 1981.
It is apparent from the letter why she considered her own grandfather even an incomparably greater evil than the persecution of Jews during the war. "I knew where the poison was. It is working now while I’m writing. Perhaps now he is already dead. Forgive me," Charlotte told of how she fed her grandfather an omelette with veronal, and then painted his last portrait while he was breathing his last.
Charlotte Salomon. Portrait of a dying Ludwig Grunwald, grandfather of Charlotte Salomon
  • The evil grandfather while alive. Photo: cjm.nonprofitsoapbox.com
  • Charlotte Salomon. Portrait of the dying Ludwig Grünwald, 1943
From the perspective of this confession, scrappy and vague hints in several scenes of the series are clarified, where grandfather Gründwald appears as a clawed monster, and Charlotte is a little girl who cannot hide from him anywhere. "Everything I did for my grandfather made me blush. I was feeling bad. I was always red like beets from bitterness and fury," the girl put her pain in the gore-coloured letters.
Charlotte Salomon. Recognition, fragment

Despite Charlotte’s confession and the strong reasons for such an act, as there is not much need for a spavined soul hurt by endless blows of fate to decide to get rid of the offender once and for all, some people still do not believe that she could do this. This is how the story goes in David Foenkinos,
"A few days later the grandfather feels a sharp pain,
He leaves the house and walks toward the pharmacy.
He finally reaches it, but collapses just outside.
And dies.
Having learnt the news, Charlotte felt such relief,
As if a weight fell off her shoulders.
In the back of her mind, she wanted the grandfather to leave for so many times…
Did Charlotte precipitate this event?
Later, in one of the letters, she confessed that she had poisoned her grandfather.
Is it true?
Or the theatre again?
This is incredible and still acceptable,
If you remember how much grief he brought to her, —
Constant scolding, and contempt for her work,
And sexual harassment. "

On the one hand, we can understand the novelist who does not want to part with the bright image of Charlotte. On the other hand, he still has the right for such assumptions, since the described in the "Life? or Theater?" series love story between her and Alfred Wolfsohn almost completely took place in the girl’s head. While this view of the events was a complete surprise for the hero of her novel; in his own words, he only regarded Charlotte as a difficult teenager, who had a way with. Who knows, perhaps, her confession of the murder of her grandfather is nothing but a fantasy of how she gets rid of the hated rapist?
Charlotte Salomon. From the cycle "Life? Or theatre?"
  • Alfred Wolfsohn. Photo: charlotte-salomon.nl
  • Seven faces of Amadeus Daberlohn through the eyes of enamored Charlotte

Life after Death

After Albert and Paula Salomon have decided to reveal the work of their daughter to the world, they became more and more popular. Her biography and heritage formed the basis of several dramatic works in various fields of art. In addition to three documentary films and two art films of the end of the lprevious century, several theatrical productions appeared in this millennium: the plays "Saving Charlotte" and "Lotte's Journey" in London, the opera "Charlotte Salomon" in Salzburg, and the opera ballet "Charlotte Salomon: Death and the Painter" in Gelsenkirchen. Film director Bibo Bergeron is presently making a movie about Charlotte Salomon’s life and work, called Charlotte, with a 10 million euro budget. In her native Berlin, an elementary school and one of the streets are named after her.
The libretto for the opera "Charlotte Salomon" by Luc Bondy was based on the artist’s authorial texts, and her gouaches were projected onto the backdrop of a panoramic scene 30 meters long. Two people performed the role of Charlotte at the same time: the German actress played Charlotte herself, and the French opera singer sang as Charlotte Kann, her fictional alter ego from the "Life? or Theater?" series.
Photo: Ruth Walz / Salzburger Festspiele
Unfortunately, the wide audience know her works less than her biography. Part of this is because they all belong to the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, based in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and are unlikely to become ever available as an auction lot. On October 20, 2017, on the occasion of centenary of the Salomon’s birth, the museum will open a special exhibition, where all the pictures of the "Life? or Theater?" series will be presented for the first time for several months, featuring more than 800 gouaches (previously up to 400 works took part in expositions all over the world).
After all, Charlotte appeared to be right in her foresight when she wrote in the epilogue of her extraordinary work, "Everything will be fine, she does not need to kill herself, like her ancestors, because one must once be dead in order to love life even more. And she saw all the beauty around her with eyes blurred with sleep — she saw the sea, felt the sun — and she knew she must disappear for a time from the human surface and for this purpose bring all the sacrifices to create her world from the depths again."

Because Salomon preferred creativity to suicide, she immortalized herself by creating an unprecedented in form and content work of art.
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Cover photo: Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden, circa 1939. Source: jck. nl

Author: Natalia Azarenko
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