The Work of a Unique Jewish Artist, Murdered by the Nazis, Finally on Display as Its Creator Intended

November 21, 2017 | Griselda Pollock
About the author:

Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte Salomon fled Germany for France in 1938, following Kristallnacht. After France fell to the Nazis, she was briefly interned in a concentration camp, subsequently released, and trekked on foot to temporary safety in Italian-controlled Nice. There, in the space of several months, she produced over 1,000 small paintings and shaped them into a single work. When the Holocaust caught up with Nice, she went into hiding but eventually was apprehended by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed along with her unborn child. The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam has now put on display, for the first time in its entirety, her masterpiece titled Life? Or Theater? It has also been published in a single volume. Griselda Pollock writes:

[M]ade up of 784 paintings, this single work demonstrates a dazzling variety of painterly modes, from detailed vignettes on a single page to freely painted fields of color with barely established figures. Three-hundred-and-thirty of the paintings combine image with text placed in beautiful configurations on tracing-paper overlays. Elsewhere, words are painted directly onto the paintings, serving as ironic commentary or dialogue. There are pages of pure text, also painted, that preface and conclude the work, which is fronted by a playbill with Brechtian character names, suggesting an almost satirical theatrical form, and presented with a title page, a somber memorial page, and an anonymous author’s preface. Salomon referred to her work as “my book” and signed it with a cipher, CS, veiling both her gender and her Jewish ethnicity.

[I]n 1942, Salomon arranged and numbered the paintings into three sections. A prologue paints a saga of life and death in Berlin between 1913 and 1936 of four women: a teenager who commits suicide by drowning, a mother (Salomon’s older sister) who leaps from a window, the grieving mother of both women, who is also the grandmother of the bereaved child, and a stepmother who is a beautiful singer. After Hitler’s takeover of Germany forces the child, now a teenager, out of school, she decides to become an artist.

A main section, the largest part, covers in intense detail 1937–8, when the art student encounters a survivor of World War I who preaches a philosophy of art and life drawn from Michelangelo and the works of Nietzsche. . . .

Each section is painted in a different mode. The prologue demonstrates an astonishing ability to weave an integrated whole out of many tiny scenes. There are brilliant composites painted with telling details of domestic interiors, train stations, holiday travels, encounters with art in Venice and Rome, as well as single-image paintings that capture the often agonized inner world and imagined memories of several women. . . . History brutally erupts with paintings of riotous fascist crowds. . . .

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