And Still the Flowers Grow
Life? Or Theatre?
Charlotte Salomon, Jewish Museum London
8 November 2019 – 1 March 2020
Although the scientific jury is still out on the matter, there is evidence that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, and then be passed down through subsequent generations. There is no measurable mutation. Instead the mark appears to alter the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins. The change is epigenetic rather than genetic. This might go some way to explain the life and work of the German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). For she was, to use the art historian Griselda Pollock’s words, ‘a transgenerational carrier of encrypted trauma, of undisclosed secrets.’
So, who was Charlotte Salomon and why should we remember her work? Well, the first part of the question is easier to answer than the second. Born in Berlin, her family was Jewish, well-to-do and assimilated. Her father, Albert Salomon, fought for Germany in the First World War, later becoming a surgeon. The household was musical, cultured and enjoyed a comfortable life. They celebrated Christmas and went skating. But at the age of eight tragedy hit. Charlotte’s mother died, apparently from influenza, and her father re-married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg. For a while Charlotte attended art school in Berlin, one of a tiny number of Jewish students admitted due to her father’s status as a war veteran. There she won a prestigious prize with her work Death and a Maiden. Though, as a Jew, she was unable to claim it and left soon after.
A shy, introverted girl she was sent, after Kristallnacht, to stay with her grandparents in Villefanche, in Pétain’s France, not yet annexed by the Nazis. In 1940 she and her grandfather were interned in a concentration camp. On their release they went into hiding, helped by a generous American, Ottilie Moore. It was during this period that Charlotte produced her huge, enigmatic and multi-layered artwork Life? or Theatre? She also married the Romanian Jew, Alexander Nagler, before being re-arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Such are the bare bones of her biography. But what is Life? or Theatre?
Put simply it is one of the most original art works of the mid-twentieth century (though it only came to light in the 1970s) and one of the hardest to classify. A visual autobiography where the authorial voice functions like a Greek chorus, the work was created from hundreds of numbered gouache paintings with textual overlays, conceived to be accompanied by musical interludes. A memoir of becoming akin to a self-conducted Freudian analysis, it is an Orphic journey into an underworld of trauma and a fight for psychic survival against the dark forces of a family’s history.
But Life? or Theatre? is no naïve outsider artwork. Rather it is a project of extraordinary ambition and complexity. For all its idiosyncrasy and refusal to be pinned down by fixed meanings, it is firmly rooted in the work of Modernist painters such as Kirchner, Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as the silent Expressionist cinema of German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. Filmic in its unfolding, it employs the narrative tension of a Greek drama or Bildungsroman. Yet, it is steeped in the tradition of German satirical musical theatre – Singspiele – such as Brecht and Kurt Weill, it can be read as a theatrical ‘happening’, a visual anthem to memory and a mission to find meaning in life through the making of art; all created under the shadow of the Holocaust.
Charlotte Salomon’s family carried many secrets. Her mother, Franziska Grünwald, did not in fact die of influenza, as her eight-year old daughter was led to believe, but by suicide. One of eight female and two male relatives to die by their own hand at a time when suicide was regarded as a sign of degeneration that could infect whole families. Other relatives included Charlotte’s aunt and grandmother (who, like her mother, threw herself out of a window, in an event witnessed by Charlotte). Remembered by those who knew her as a shy, taciturn girl, it was her friendship with the penniless singing teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, who gave singing lessons to her stepmother, that provided her with a philosophical and artistic road-map out of the slough of despond that she inhabited, of which she wrote: ‘If I can’t enjoy life and work, I will kill myself….’
Wolfsohn had served at the front during the First World War and had been traumatised with shell-shock. To cure himself he developed a mechanism that utilised the voice as a restorative vehicle, suggesting that there was a connection between death, the human soul and artistic expression. It was he who taught Charlotte to look death and trauma in the eye, in order to become free of fear. As a result, she fell deeply in love with him. A love which, despite some evidence of a physical relationship between them, was largely unrequited. Although Wolfsohn played stepmother and stepdaughter against each other, he believed in Charlotte’s artistic ability and gave her the emotional courage to embark on a cathartic journey that led to her death-denying, life-affirming creation Life? or Theatre?
It was in the South of France during the summer of 1940, that she found, with the support of Ottilie Moore, the space to delve deep into her psyche to produce over a thousand images. Divided into three parts: ‘Prelude’, ‘Main Section’ and ‘Epilogue’, not unlike the acts of a play, the ‘actors’ in Life? or Theatre? are types whose naming serves an ironic purpose. They list her dramatis personae, painted in capital letters of red, blue and yellow gouache, approximate to those who peopled her life. In the transparent overlay for The Monster, a blue and red skeleton with huge hands fills the sheet of paper, looming above a row of Lilliputian figures drawn in red. The accompanying text reads in the third person: ‘And whenever she has to walk along the endless wide high dark passage in her grandparents’ home, she imagines something terrible, with skeleton’s limbs that have something to do with her mother. Then she is filled with panic and begins to run- run-run….’ This skeleton is the quintessence of a child’s night terrors. It is Nosferatu, or the German bone man, Knochenmann, a bogeyman that stands in contrast to the daytime images of children playing with hoops in the park or building snow men.
It is only when we are drawn further into the drama, into the image of a copulating couple in The Night Struggle, or the anxious Munchian painting of Charlotte Kann in the bathroom, or the red painting where her alter ego the artist Charlotte Salomon (who signs herself CS) has written, in urgent capital letters, ‘Dear God please let me not go mad’ that we begin to suspect that death, desire and lust are closely interlinked in the destabilisation of this family. Though mythic and elusive, we start to see a history of dysfunction in these texts and images that runs through the generations centred, for Charlotte, on her grandfather.
At the start of the ‘Prologue’ the paintings are whimsical and full of period detail – a cross between Chagall and the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. But as the work progresses, they become looser, more immediate, more frantic and expressionistic, as if the artist knows that she is running out of time. In several images from the ‘Main Section’, rows of bodies lie inert or half-sleeping, unconsciously prophesying the piles of dead later to be discovered in Auschwitz.
The manuscript of Life? or Theatre? was found safely in the hands of Ottlie Moore. She presented it to Charlotte Salomon’s father and stepmother who had managed to survive the Holocaust in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with it, they took advice from Anne Frank’s father, and presented it to the city’s Jewish Museum. It was not, though, until 2012, when Franz Weisz made his film Charlotte, that the ‘Postscript’ pages, written in energetic painted block capitals, which had not formed part of the original donation, were brought to light. In them was the, apparent, shocking confession that Charlotte Salomon had poisoned her grandfather with an omelette laced with the barbiturate Veronal. The case, made by Griselda Pollock, in her enormous Yale Study on the artist, is that we cannot be certain whether this was true or if Charlotte was acting out of a repressed psychic desire. What, perhaps, we can be more sure of in this complex palimpsest, a monumental Modernist artwork that witnessed the rise of fascism, is the familial sexual abuse and domestic incest, which contributed to the many suicides within this family.
The great irony is that the final painting of Life? Or Theatre? shows a young female sitting in a bathing costume painting and looking out towards the blue Mediterranean (a hopeful future?). Inked directly on her back, like a tattoo, are the words Leben oder Theater – minus the question marks. The poignancy of the image is that it suggests, against the odds, that Charlotte Salomon had found a way to confront her traumatic memories through her body of work. That she chose life – only to be sent to Drancy internment camp and then, on the 7 October 1943, to Auschwitz, where on the 10 October, at around four months pregnant at the age of 26, she was gassed – is all the more tragic. Its complex richness Life? or Theatre? remains open to multiple readings. At one and the same time it is a theatre of memory, a confession, a study of gender roles and Jewish subjectivity. A fantasia. But most of all, it is the history of the struggle of one young woman to find, through the practice of painting, a continued reason to live.
Published in The London Magazine, Dec/Jan 2020