Despite producing one of the most outstanding bodies of work of the twentieth century—a Gesamtkunstwerk (or ‘total artwork’) that owes as much to music, cinema and theater as it does to painting—Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) is not widely known. When she is spoken about, Griselda Pollock notes in a talk on her 2018 book on Salomon, it is often in the same breath as Anne Frank, in an attempt to cast her as “a tragic victim of the holocaust … [who], in defiance of the forces around her, created this great work to comfort us.”
Indeed, it can be difficult to disentangle Salomon’s life’s work from the tragedy and violence that shaped her life. As you approach the Lenbachhaus—currently hosting an exhibition of Salomon’s “Singespiel” that she called Life? or Theater?—you cross Königsplatz, a former Nazi parade ground and, in 1933, the site of a major book-burning. Those coming to Salomon’s art for the first time often know little about her other than the fact that at 26, she was murdered in Auschwitz. Yet this touring exhibition of a selection of gouaches and transparent pages curated by Irene Faber of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam succeeds in doing justice to its hybridity and emphasizing, rather than the tragic life and times of its creator, the huge scope and ambition of the work itself.
The totality of Life? or Theater? consists of 769 paintings completed within two years after Salomon fled Berlin to the south of France in 1939. While Salomon’s life’s work certainly lends itself to the description ‘monumental’, the descriptor doesn’t capture its intimacy and playful irony. Yet even the abridged version presented in this exhibition is huge. The main section alone comprises 469 paintings, of which 124 are exhibited around the perimeter of the Lenbachhaus’s large underground Kunstbau space.
Each page-sized gouache is numbered and divided into three ‘acts’ by Salomon to produce something like a storyboard for an unrealized opera or film. If it resembles any single contemporary form, it is the graphic novel. Characters modeled on real figures in Salomon’s life are given pseudonyms, from the singing teacher Amadeus Daberlohn (an alias for Salomon’s lover, Alfred Wolfsohn) to the singer Paulinka Bimbam (a stand-in for Salomon’s stepmother, Paula Salomon-Lindberg) or Salomon’s own avatar, Charlotte Kann. Texts written by Salomon for each piece are printed in a booklet so visitors can read along. Separate displays provide historical detail and shed light on the material process behind the work’s creation, such as how some texts were written on semi-transparent overlays or how Salomon covered the eyes of figures in rejected gouaches with tape. At some junctures, visitors can listen to music referenced in the text. While such displays help to illustrate the many-layered texture of the work, it was sensible not to include too much additional material. It took me three hours to make my way around, and I found myself hurrying through the Epilogue before closing time.
Life? or Theater? is profoundly concerned with remembrance, but not in a memorializing or elegiac way. Salomon is far from sentimental when recalling the urbanity of her middle-class life in Berlin—a merciless social critic, she is keen-eyed, sometimes even cruel, when depicting what she describes as “the theater of civilized, cultured people.” She is also cynical about formal artistic spaces and the people in them—for example, the opera fans who would tell her stepmother that she had been “wonderful, as always” to the Nazis she depicts among the students in her art school. In contrast, Salomon elevates the act of making art alone. In several pieces, the outside world blurs as Charlotte Kann works joyously on a painting. In one, the brilliance of what she is working on radiates off the page in a wave of golden yellow.
While she rejects convention in favor of her own idiosyncratic expressivity, a Salomon color-code does emerge: yellows come to symbolize joy, music, the warmth of the sun, or the touch of skin upon skin; reds stand for tragedy, something done in anger, or, in the manner of comic-books or manga, shame; blues tend to be quieter, and suggest a coming into oneself. Later in the progression, Charlotte describes the importance of solitude for her work to Daberlohn: “I saw nothing else. Only colors paintbrush you and this.” Taking their cue from Salomon, the curation team has done an excellent job in prioritizing an analogous encounter between visitors and the paintings, without fuss or heavy-handed framing.
One interpretation of Salomon’s question Life? or Theater? is that it captures her attempt to separate the truth from the lies she has been told about her family. While there are paintings that deal with anti-semitic persecution, the memories Salomon seems most interested in are deeply personal. The work is bookended by two suicides – first her mother’s, when Charlotte was a girl, and then her grandmother’s. Her mother’s suicide seems to bleed out into the gouaches before and after the event—the red bedspread as her mother tells her bedtime stories and the “lonely red quilt” on which her husband sits in the wake of her death. But despite her uncanny eye for detail in depicting her mother’s body (one leg pointing straight up in the air, the body covered with a white sheet), the painting is a false memory. As a child, she never saw the body or even knew that her mother had committed suicide. Instead, the image matches descriptions of Salomon’s later account of finding her grandmother’s body. She wouldn’t learn until she was in France that other members of her family had also killed themselves, including her great-grandmother, her great-uncle and her mother’s sister.
At times, Salomon’s work does have a confessional, even diary-like quality, especially the paintings which depict Charlotte Kann’s relationship with Daberlohn. Over twenty years older than her, he cuts an ambiguous figure. While he is one of the few outspoken admirers of her paintings, he sometimes strikes her as a monologuing bore. Nevertheless, his theories about overcoming trauma permeate the work. The paintings of Daberlohn capture the compulsive desire to reproduce the face of someone we have fallen in love with, whether in a work of art or in the back of an exercise book. But here the artist also realizes that even beloved people can appear odd or even ugly. Daberlohn appears, at times, Buddha-like, a flowing, blue-green stream as he describes his “great idea;” at other times, he’s puffed-up and bothersome. Salomon also captures the young Charlotte’s worry about how the pair will be perceived. Her depictions of their encounters in Berlin bars (seen as if we are seated at the next table) make looking at their trysts feel indecent. Yet, in one memorable gouache, Charlotte sits across from Daberlohn, now wearing red lipstick, her face more angular and older-looking than when they first met. Eye-to-eye, their hands touching, she says: “One day people will be looking at us two.” However intimate these moments are, Salomon seems to remind the viewer (and perhaps her former lover) that the work wasn’t just composed for Daberlohn but also for the public.
The exhibition also includes a complete reproduction of a letter, painted in watercolor, added to the work in 1943 and addressed to ‘Daberlohn’ before she entrusted the entirety of Life? or Theater? to her doctor. Her stepmother had previously removed the letter from the work (it was only recovered in 2011), likely because it contains the “confession” that Charlotte killed her grandfather with an omelet laced with poison. It isn’t entirely clear whether Charlotte Kann’s actions mirror Charlotte Salomon’s own or whether the same abuse was visited on Salomon as she heavily implies was visited upon her protagonist, both in the letter (“everything I did for my grandfather drove blood to my face”) and in the work (one painting depicts him in his nightgown pleading “what’s wrong with sharing a bed with me?”). The exhibition text is more circumspect about their “strained relationship” than some will feel is warranted by the letter, despite the melodrama with which the poisoning is told. Some caution, though, does seem appropriate, especially as the very question Life? or Theater? hangs over the veracity of the confession. What more operatic way to end the work than with a murder?
Neither the narrative of ‘artist as victim’ nor ‘artist as murderer’ captures Salomon’s multiplicity. The state of victimhood may have been one which Salomon, at times in her life, felt she inhabited. But like Daberlohn in her depictions of him—his mind moving from idea to idea—Salomon seems to have seen this state of victimhood as one which she could use her art to move through, and to overcome.
CHARLOTTE SALOMON: Life? or Theater? is on view at the Lenbachhaus in Munich until September 10. A digital version of the artist’s full body of work is also available online at https://charlotte.jck.nl.