Charlotte Salomon’s Paintings Highlight the Life—Not the Death—of a Holocaust Victim
The First World War destroyed the fabric of the German state, but Berlin, its capital, would soon become a vibrant cultural center, the likes of which Europe had not yet seen. In a time of hyperinflation and staggering unemployment, Berlin in the Weimar years became a city of cabarets and chaos, drama and decadence.
It was largely reimagined in the image of the Bauhaus — a hypermodern style in which form followed function — and it was home to daring artists like Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Expressionists who scandalized social mores at least as much as aesthetic convention. The city was a crucible, ablaze with angst, anger, and ennui.
It was in this setting that Charlotte Salomon was born, in 1917, and would later come of age. The daughter of a prosperous surgeon, she was raised among the city’s sizable Jewish haut-bourgeoisie, a veritable civilization that is today little more than a memory, an entire world reduced to fading names on copper cobblestones and on plaques where synagogues used to be.
For the philosopher Martin Buber, the Germans and the Jews shared in a powerful “symbiosis.” For the Israeli historian Amos Elon, they were “two souls within the same body.” In the 1920s and 1930s, the way that “symbiosis” would end was still unimaginable, and German Jews were still among the most culturally accomplished groups in the history of modern Europe, a demographic whose lifeblood was art for art’s sake.
So it was for Salomon, a young painter who left behind one of the most curious but oft-forgotten cultural artifacts produced in her time. This is Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel, “Life? Or Theater?: A Song-Play,” a type of artwork seldom produced any more, a “total work of art” in the grand tradition of Richard Wagner, the nineteenth-century composer who advocated an art form that would transcend a single genre and fuse music, literature, and painting.
“Life? Or Theater?” is firmly in that tradition: It contains 769 paintings, mostly gouaches, each of which is accompanied by a small amount of text that illuminates the image. According to notes left behind, Salomon imagined all of these artworks as frames in an evolving musical narrative that would somehow encompass them all.
Together, the watercolors express the clamor and the agony of a young woman’s inner life. They are whimsical, emotive, and painful. The paintings depict Salomon’s mother’s suicide, her move from Berlin to the lush and verdant south of France, where many of these paintings were completed, and, finally, her first love affair, with the German musician Alfred Wolfsohn.
Wagner — the great Romantic composer and outspoken antisemite — would likely not have been pleased with Salomon’s work. Its essence was introspection, and it emphasized the life of the artist rather than the collective experience of her time, her country, or its historical myths. Furthermore, that artist was a Jew — one who, in the words of the art historian Norman Rosenthal, “belonged to a supposedly alien race and who was therefore held not to even have a right to exist, let alone a place in society.”
In the midst of composing the gouaches that together comprised her lengthy masterpiece, Salomon was arrested in Nice, sent to Drancy, the detention camp outside Paris, and ultimately deported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed in 1943. That fact poses what is perhaps the most complicated question about Charlotte Salomon: When we look at her art, what should we see?
She understood herself as an artist, and her art largely reflects her inner life, her passions, and her fears. However, viewers of her works can see what she could not — the terrible fate that awaited her in 1943. In other words, if she is an artist, she is also a victim of the Holocaust, even if her art is not necessarily a testimony of her experience as such. If Charlotte Salomon the woman can be remembered as both artist and victim, is the same true of her art?
“Life? Or Theater?”, after all, is the product of an artist who was many things but, chief among them, alive, entranced by both the joy and the darkness of humanity. Yet her masterpiece is often considered as a document that somehow sheds light on the coming storm brewing in France and in Europe in the early 1940s — this is almost always the theme of the exhibitions and the texts that tell her story.
In a powerful sense, Salomon’s art is the opposite of her fate: What do we gain by subordinating the former to the latter?
Written by James McAuley, a Museum contributing writer.