“And with dream awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew she had to vanish for a while from the human surface and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came Life or Theatre???”
When German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) handed her gouache series Life? or Theatre? to a friend, she beseeched him to “take good care of it it is my entire life.” A few months later, 26-year old Charlotte was deported to Auschwitz, where she was put to death shortly after her arrival. The work Salomon left behind is, in a very real sense, her “cathartic” masterpiece. Her cycle of gouaches combines creative energy with a pioneering personal narrative that spans all facets of her existence: Charlotte’s complicated family life marked by the suicides of nearly all of her female relatives, her youth in Berlin, her close relation to singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn, the rise of the Nazis, her exile in France in 1939. Throughout, the artist challenges these destructive forces by deploying playful pseudonyms and fantastical elements alongside emotional candor, remarkable observation, and a meticulous visual memory. Without comparison, Charlotte’s gouaches are a triumph of personal truth and individual expression. Published in this Taschen new book (2017) with a selection of the 450 most important pieces, Life? or Theatre? is an unrivalled magnum opus from a great and ambitious artist, overshadowed by her early death, but luminous with her precision, her lyricism, and her courage.
Salomon called the work “something crazy special”; its uncategorizable nature is a reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play. Life? or Theater? is intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian ‘total work of art’ within the tradition of the ambitious nineteenth century German idea to fuse poetry, music and the visual arts. Yet Salomon’s work is a reversal of that tradition which was intended to be the ultimate manifestation of Germanic culture – instead it is a work created by a “young woman who belonged to a supposedly alien race and who was therefore held not to even have a right to exist, let alone have a place in society.”
Who is Charlotte Salomon
“Charlotte Salomon (16 April 1917 – 10 October 1943) was a German-Jewish artist born in Berlin. She is primarily remembered as the creator of an autobiographical series of paintings Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater?: A Song-play) consisting of 769 individual works painted between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, while Salomon was in hiding from the Nazis. In October 1943 she was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she and her unborn child were murdered by the Nazis soon after her arrival. In 2015, a nineteen-page confession by Salomon to the fatal poisoning of her grandfather, kept secret for decades, was released by a Parisian publisher.
Charlotte Salomon came from a prosperous Berlin family. Her father, Albert Salomon was a surgeon; her mother, sensitive and troubled, committed suicide when Charlotte was eight or nine, though she was led to believe her mother died from influenza. Charlotte was sixteen when the Nazis came to power in 1933. She simply refused to go to school, and stayed at home.
At a time when German universities were restricting their Jewish student quota to 1.5% of the student body (providing their fathers had served on the front line in the First World War), Salomon succeeded in gaining admission to the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst(United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts) in 1936. She studied painting there for two years, but by summer 1938 the antisemitic policy of Hitler’s Third Reich meant that it was too dangerous for her to continue attending the college and she did not return, despite winning a prize.
Salomon’s father was briefly interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, and the Salomon family decided to leave Germany. Charlotte was sent to the South of France to live with her grandparents, already settled in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice. They lived in a cottage in the grounds of a luxurious villa L’Ermitage (now demolished) owned by a wealthy American, Ottilie Moore, who went on to shelter a number of Jewish children. Salomon left L’Ermitage with her grandparents to live in an apartment in Nice, where her grandmother attempted to hang herself in the bathroom. Her grandfather then revealed the truth to Charlotte about her mother’s suicide, as well as the suicides of her aunt Charlotte, her great grandmother, her great uncle, and her grandmother’s nephew. Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Charlotte’s grandmother succeeded in taking her own life. Her grandmother had stockpiled Veronal and morphine for when the German army arrived, but when she was denied access to her medication, she instead tried and failed to hang herself before eventually succeeding by throwing herself out of a window.
Charlotte and her grandfather were interned by the French authorities in a bleak camp in the Pyrenees called Gurs. Charlotte recalls in Life? or Theater? that spending a night in a crowded train is preferable to spending one night with her grandfather: “I’d rather have ten more nights like this than a single one alone with him”. His constant request to share his bed with her and her own words in a confession letter of 35 pages made public in 2015 reveal the possibility of sexual abuse.
They were released on account of her grandfather’s infirmity. Her grandfather went back to Nice to live, and in Villefranche, Charlotte was facing a nervous breakdown after all the revelations, topped with the disgust for her grandfather. She wrote in Life? or Theater? that it was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler”, who “symbolized for me the people I had to resist. Dr George Morridis, the local doctor, advised her to paint.
Salomon rented a room in the pension La Belle Aurore in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and there she commenced the work that would outlive her. She began her series of 769 paintings – entitled Life? or Theater? – by stating that she was driven by “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual”. In the space of two years, she painted over a thousand gouaches. She edited the paintings, re-arranged them, and added texts, captions, and overlays. She had a habit of humming songs to herself while painting. The entire work was a slightly fantastic autobiography preserving the main events of her life – her mother’s death, studying art in the shadow of the Third Reich, her relationship with her grandparents – but altering the names and employing a strong element of fantasy. She also added notes about appropriate music to increase the dramatic effect, and she called Life? or Theater? a “Singespiel”, [sic] or lyrical drama.
In 1942, her residence permit depending on her being her grandfather’s caretaker, she joined him in Nice. She then admittedly poisoned him with a home-made veronal omelette, drawing his portrait and writing a 35-page confession letter to her former lover Alfred Wolfsohn, who never received the letter.
In 1943, as the Nazis intensified their search for Jews living in the South of France, Salomon handed the work to a local Villefranche doctor she was acquainted with, and addressed it to Ottilie Moore—the German-American millionaire who owned the villa Salomon was hiding in at the time. She inscribed Moore’s name at the top, and told the doctor: “Keep this safe, it is my whole life.” Moore, who passed on the package to Charlotte’s remaining family, only received the package upon her return to Europe in 1947, after the war’s end.
By September 1943, Salomon had married another German Jewish refugee, Alexander Nagler. The two of them were dragged from their house and transported by rail from Nice to the Nazi “processing centre” at Drancy near Paris. By now, Salomon was five months pregnant. She was transported to Auschwitz on 7 October 1943 and was probably murdered in the gas chamber on the same day that she arrived there, October 10.” (Source)
Death and the Maiden The Maiden Away with thee! Let me be! Get away, thou grisly man of bone! I am still young. Desist, I beg thee! And lay not a single finger on me. Death Give me thy hand, thou picture of beauty and tenderness! I come as thy friend, and I mean no harm. Be of good cheer! I'm not here to scare thee. Thou shalt sleep sweetly in my arms! Matthias Claudius, 1774 Franz Schubert, D 531, op. 7, no. 3, February 1817
** Charlotte won First Prize in 1937 with this drawing “Death and the Maiden” she submitted to a competition for the Sandkuhl Prize, the theme that year being “German Fairy Tales”.