Summary of Charlotte Salomon
Perhaps one of the most underestimated artists in recent history, Charlotte Salomon secretly created a daunting visual opus while in exile during World War II. As a young German Jewish woman who witnessed the rise of the Nazis, Salomon used her artistic talent and vivid imagination to craft an expressive collection of imagery and text from an intensely personal story. Her work not only reveals an adept grasp of modernist aims and techniques, but also exposes the psychological workings of an artist desperately trying to maintain her individual identity at a time when her very existence was threatened by both internal and external forces.
- Salomon's vast, sequential work blithely blends real-world events with flights of fancy, resisting the categories of fiction and autobiography. She transforms lived experience from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood into the subjects of her painted narrative. Yet, she presents the drama from a distance, narrating the events from the perspective of a spectator, as if they were not her own personal memories but rather a compelling fictional saga. Salomon rejects the notion that art must come exclusively from an artist's experience or creative imagination, instead drawing from both sources without apology.
- A prominent theme throughout Salomon's work is the question of whether individuals are subject to certain fates beyond their control. Her characters appear destined to particular experiences - especially hardships - based on aspects of their identity they didn't choose, such as family history and religious background. At times, Salomon defied these inherited destinies foisted upon her, refusing to remain at schools condemning her Jewish heritage in 1930s Berlin or to fall victim to her family's pattern of suicides. However, Salomon and her characters also struggled to resist seemingly fateful, often tragic, outcomes. Salomon utilizes her characters to question fate and free will, using the framework and techniques of art to explore a serious, and at times painful, concept in her life.
- Salomon skillfully employed her knowledge of storytelling, musical composition, and visual art in one space to engage an imagined reader on many levels. The element of performance is a driving factor throughout Salomon's narrative. She willingly acknowledges her audience by anticipating questions from hypothetical readers and using techniques from musical theatre throughout her composition, including popular song lyrics as captions for her images and giving stage directions to describe the thoughts and behaviors of the characters. During her lifetime, Salomon never enjoyed a widespread audience for her work, yet she did not let her isolated artistic practice prevent her from engaging with the consumers of her fascinating tale and compelling imagery.
Progression of Art
One of the few remaining works from Salomon before she embarked on the creative journey that would become Life? or Theater?, this self-portrait dates to around 1940, when the artist was living in exile in southern France. Salomon represents herself as if on guard; the central focal point of the painting shows her locking eyes with the viewer in a sideways glance, simultaneously captivating the viewer and conveying a sense of reserved wariness on her part. Her expression is somber, and the stark contrast between the ochre and blue tones combine with the empty background to create a sparse scene. The cropping of the image at the artist's shoulder withholds any further information about her body and her environment from the viewer, reflecting a skillful use of the framing device to restrict the viewer's attention to the details of her countenance alone, forcing a more engaged contemplation of her emotions and their sources.
Around the time of this self-portrait, Salomon's grandmother committed suicide, and Salomon found out about the history of suicides in her family, including her own mother's. Additionally, Salomon and her grandfather were arrested and sent to the Gurs concentration camp. Despite the personal hardships and emotional toil Salomon encountered, her work continued to demonstrate her artistic talent and motivation. With only a few clear and simple lines and three colors, she was able to convey her inner turmoil underneath the restrained facade. Her self-portrait affirms the power of an artist to use limited means in order to convey great awareness and strength in the face of internal tension and external antagonism.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Sheet 4175 from Life? or Theatre?
Part of the Prelude section in Life? or Theatre?, this scene was inspired by a vivid childhood memory for the artist. Depicting herself as the character Charlotte, Salomon presents Charlotte in bed with her mother, Franziska. Salomon's mother used to tell her daughter how beautiful Heaven was, promising that she would go there one day and become an angel, and send Salomon a letter telling her everything about it, as her daughter requested. In reality, Salomon waited a long time for this letter before understanding the truth of death and finally grieving the loss of her mother.
The memory becomes a dreamy scene that floats upon a swirling blue background. The space is clearly divided in three parts. In the first part, on the bottom left, Charlotte and her mother are shown talking to each other in a large bed with a deep red cover. The daughter is embraced tenderly by her mother. Next, Franziska appears in the center of the page floating upward, with the image of her body repeated in sequence along the ascending line toward the rendition of Heaven at the top of the page. Heaven is painted as a gathering of individuals spread horizontally across the top of the page, with God at the center greeting Franziska at an open doorway. In the final part in the lower right of the page, Franziska appears as an angel to deliver a letter through the window to her daughter. Below the window is an image of Charlotte leaning over her mother in another bed, perhaps her mother's deathbed, something that the artist herself would never have experienced in real life.
Salomon uses an overlay technique for this scene, layering transparent sheets with text on top of the painted page, which is typical for much of the work comprised within Life? or Theater? Throughout the beginning Prelude section, Salomon includes captions, often with musical instructions, lyrics, and other text spread across the page in unusual, curving lines that occasionally turn into images in their own right. For this scene and its immediate predecessor in the collection, Salomon has chosen a Christmas carol called "The Christmas tree is bright with candles" as the musical tune to which this moment is set. On a separate sheet of tracing paper, the artist writes the narration: "FRANZISKA. 'In Heaven everything is much more beautiful than here on earth - and when your Mommy has turned into a little angel she'll come down and bring her little lambkin, she'll bring a letter, telling her what it's like in Heaven, what it's up there in Heaven.'" This text on the transparency duplicates the movement of Franziska traveling upward from the bed to Heaven and back down to the window, blurring the distinctions between the imagery and the text when laid over the painted page. Salomon transforms a deeply intimate memory of her late mother and her childhood self into an imaginative interplay of imagery, text, and even music, returning to painful emotions while embracing the myriad ways that art allows for creative expression and personal healing.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Sheet 4304 from Life? or Theatre?
Salomon begins Act Two of her visual saga with the rise of Nazism and its accession to power in Germany. On January 30, 1933, Salomon was sixteen when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party increased its power in the German government. A stark contrast from the family scenes of her childhood in the preceding section of Life? or Theater?, here Salomon bombards the viewer immediately with the overwhelming image of the Nazi brown-shirts parading in victory. She depicts the brown-shirts in the street as an unstoppable human wave, forming an anonymous and faceless mob that pushes forward toward the viewer. Interrupting the sea of soldiers is a single red flag, raised high above their heads and waving with vigor. The flag contains the easily recognizable swastika, the symbol adopted by the Nazis; yet, Salomon turns the swastika backwards, as if rotating in reverse. Hovering in the center of the page is also a patch of white paint with the date clearly written in black ink to mark the historic day.
Salomon captures both the excitement of the crowd and the fear that it provoked among the Jewish community. The musical tune accompanying this scene was a popular celebration of the swastika, which Salomon provides in a caption: "The swastika - a symbol bright of hope -The day for freedom and for bread now dawns." As Monica Bohm-Duchen points out, the text that Salomon attaches to her images "complicates and enriches" our readings of the scenes depicted. In this case, Salomon's inclusion of the song lyrics that announce the arrival of freedom and abundance with the Nazi symbol highlights how some Germans welcomed this moment in time as an opportunity to regain political and economic success. At the same time, this announcement threatens the safety of other Germans, namely the Jewish population. As members of this threatened group, Salomon and her characters were clearly excluded from this celebratory gathering, marking this date instead as the moment when their lives would never be the same. As such, Jewish individuals are completely absent from Salomon's image, leaving us with the sobering realization of what is to come.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Sheet 4608 from Life? or Theatre?
In the main section of the work, the character Amadeus Daberlohn appears. His name, translated as "Penniless Amadeus," disguises the true identity of the individual this character is based on, Alfred Wolfsohn. Wolfsohn was generously hired by Paula Lindberg, Salomon's stepmother, as her vocal coach, yet his presence in Salomon's household had a much greater impact than originally intended. By Salomon's account seen through her work, Wolfsohn became her first true love interest in her teenage years. As her lover, he encouraged her artistic talent and education, sharing his beliefs on topics ranging from philosophy, music, and art. On this page, we see his thoughts in his own words, flowing across the chests of the images of Daberlohn that fill up the entire page. His image is repeated sixty-two times, organized in seven horizontal lines. Salomon uses this process of repeated bust images several times within this section to represent her lover's monologues and teachings. On the one hand, this insistent repetition of his countenance reveals an unrestrained obsession on the part of the artist, who recreates his image time and again in an attempt to hold on to him even in exile. On the other hand, the seemingly endless flow of faces mocks the music teacher, as if he is unaware that his teachings can turn into dull droning.
On this particular sheet, Daberlohn discusses two paintings made by Charlotte, using her works as an opportunity to expound on his ideas about art and the philosophical lessons from Nietzsche, a common topic of conversation between the two lovers. Her two paintings, titled Death and the Maiden and The Meadow with Yellow Flowers, force Daberlohn to confront "two different female spiritual states," namely despair and hope. Daberlohn sees these opposing states coming into harmony, acknowledging the close relationship between these two emotions as one often feeds into the other in what he terms "the completion of a circle." For her part, Salomon offers a way to find hope from despair by recalling her lover's face and words in such imaginative detail. Salomon reveals her intimate knowledge of her subject in a tumbling sequence of faces that overwhelms the viewer with several pages of musings on art, emotions, and the intense relationship between young Charlotte and the older Daberlohn.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Sheet 4860 from Life? or Theatre?
On this page, Salomon begins the difficult narration of the history of suicides in her mother's side of the family, told from the voice of the grandfather. Salomon depicts her grandfather lying in bed, confessing to Charlotte not only that her relatives committed suicide - from her own mother, her late aunt and namesake, to her Grandma's mother - but also how they took their lives. As with other paintings in this third section of the opus, called The Epilogue, Salomon has included the text directly on the image rather than overlaying it on a different, transparent page, as if the image and narrative can no longer be separated in any way.
The old man is dressed in white, matching his long white beard, white top portion of the bed cover, and white background. He wears a serious but surprisingly serene look on his face. The combination of color and expression gives the scene an odd tranquility considering the subject matter at hand. What's more, at the time Salomon painted this work, she was not living with her grandfather anymore, preferring only to visit him occasionally. Even so, she portrays him kindly, knowing her growing resentment towards him over time, enough to compel her to poison him and end his life eventually.
Once more, Salomon has transformed a troubling personal memory into a unique interplay of text and image. The angle of the Grandfather and the lack of background imagery removes the illusion of depth in the space, flattening the scene and compressing it within the rectangular frame. Further eliminating any spatial realism, the text hovers overhead, winding its way across the blank space at the top of the page and around the head and shoulders of the grandfather, spilling onto the bed at the bottom right side of the page. Unlike pages in the earlier sections of Life? or Theater?, which had musical directions and accompanying melodies, this scene and those around it offer elements like rhythm and tempo through the actions of the readers themselves. As the words spill forward and even encroach upon the images, the story is hurried, as if it cannot be restrained to orderly captions. As such, the tempo of the story increases and is timed to coincide with a dramatic revelation. The artist skillfully shares her adept understanding of musical, textual, and visual composition.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Sheet 4925 from Life? or Theatre?
Following several pages of text without imagery, this painting is the final page of the entire work. We see Charlotte seated, her legs curled up underneath her, facing the Mediterranean Sea. She wears an olive-green bathing suit, exposing much of her body, which is given a tawny orange hue accented with bright red brush strokes. Her head tilts downward, focusing her gaze on the painting she holds in her lap, over which hovers a paintbrush in her right hand. She seems absorbed by her art. Emblazoned across her bare back are the words Leben oder Theater (Life or Theatre), transforming this portrait into a title page and a final declaration at the same time.
Oddly, the painting in Charlotte's lap is transparent, revealing both her body and the sea within its subtle frame, as if the distinctions between Charlotte's art and the world around her have dissipated. Just as the line between fiction and reality have been blurred throughout the entire saga, the art here eliminates any difference between what the artist shows and what she sees. As Rachel Withers observes, "the surface of her work has dissolved; representation and life have apparently melted into one another in an ideal union." Even so, the weight of Charlotte's life story and artistic labor makes her experience difficult rather than ideal in many ways. And Withers recognizes that "the precarious relation of 'fact' and 'fiction' is a vicissitude to be negotiated painfully; feelings do not spill out, spontaneously, into paintings." Withers reminds us that although Salomon presents her readers with an astonishing narrative in imagery and text, we must be wary of how much to believe as autobiography and how much to interpret at the inspired imagination of a talented artist. In the final image, both the fictional Charlotte and the artist Salomon are looking ahead to the future, finally at peace after having chosen life over death through art.
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Biography of Charlotte Salomon
Charlotte Salomon was born in an upper middle-class family in Berlin in 1917. Her father, Albert Salomon, was a renowned physician, and her mother, Fränze Grunwald, known as Franziska, was a nurse for the German army when they met. An only child, Salomon spent the first years of her life in a defeated city broken by the war, living with a busy father devoted to his career and a depressed mother still traumatized by the suicide of her younger sister, Charlotte, who was eighteen years old when she drowned in 1913. Named after her late aunt, Salomon (called Lotte by most) and her mother often visited her aunt's tomb. Unfortunately, Salomon's mother's condition continued to decline over the years, until she finally committed suicide herself in 1926, when Charlotte was only eight years old. The truth was kept from the little girl, who believed that her mother died of influenza.
In 1930, Salomon's father married the well-known, charismatic lyric singer Paula Lindberg. This marriage not only gave the artist stability in her family life, but it also opened up for her the cultural world of Berlin as she became familiar with prominent musicians and artists that her stepmother associated with. Salomon truly loved her stepmother and attended all of her concerts. The two women formed a strong bond, even as Salomon's connections to her father and her school peers became increasingly distant. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Paula and her colleagues found themselves increasingly restricted in their artistic activities, as Jews were excluded from professional realms and public spaces in Berlin. However, as some Jews were able to emigrate during these troubling times, many Jews in Germany remained. Noting their responsibilities to serve their community, Salomon's father and stepmother decided to stay in Berlin, finding ways to assist other Jews by treating them, giving them work, or helping them get out. For her part, Salomon showed no signs of wanting to leave either her art studies or her family. But by the end of 1938, it was clear that leaving Germany was their only option.
Early Training and Work
Early on, Salomon attended the Fürsten Bismarck School for girls in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, a fashionable neighborhood where many Jewish families were living. Yet she left the school abruptly in 1933, when it enacted new Nazi educational regulations that promoted racial purity and demoralized and excluded Jewish students. According to Salomon's biographer, Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, "Mainly Lotte quit at age sixteen because any Nazi sign offended her. It was a principled and crucial move."
After an attempt to enroll Salomon in a fashion design school, she left, rejecting the criticism and rigidity her drawing instructor leveled at her. Salomon's taste and skills for drawing led her father to hire a private drawing teacher. Even though the artist grew rapidly bored by her private instructor's pedantic teaching style, she greatly improved her skills and gained artistic knowledge. Aiding her artistic journey was an invitation in 1934 to join her grandparents in Italy on a summer trip in honor of her seventeenth birthday. She went to Rome and Venice, discovering Ancient Roman art and architecture along with Renaissance art that would leave lasting impressions on her.
In 1936, with the help of the instructor Ludwig Bartning who recognized her talent, Salomon was accepted to the State Art Academy in Berlin, despite its restricting 1.5% quota for Jewish students. Her unobtrusive demeanor convinced the school officials that she would not "present a danger to the Aryan male students." Salomon was a discreet but brilliant student. She studied painting and discovered the modern art of Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Otto Dix, in books from the library that had not yet been banned and removed. She also read many art critics and philosophers, including Nietzsche. In 1937, the Nazis organized the famous "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, emphasizing with great fanfare their attack on modern artists. There's no record of Salomon attending the exhibit, but it is likely that she heard and read about it. In 1938, Salomon won the Academy's annual prize in painting, a prestigious and blind competition. However, since she was Jewish, Salomon was not allowed to receive the prize in public, and instead it was given to a non-Jewish friend of hers, Barbara. For Salomon, this public denial of her talent was a significant disappointment. She decided not to return to the school.
During her student years, she met a man who would impact her life greatly: Albert Wolfsohn. He was a famous singing teacher with very modern theories about voice, teaching, art, and creation, believing that "emotional healing" could extend one's vocal range. He managed to get hired by Paula for private lessons. Though he was more than twenty years her senior, Salomon fell in love with him and was inspired by his theories and philosophy. Wolfsohn quickly recognized Salomon's talent, and found her extremely quiet nature an enticing challenge. Their love affair was very intense for the artist but remained secret. Salomon was quite affected by his presence in her life, depicting his face nearly 3,000 times in her later work. Although she understood him to be self-confident, even a bit of a playboy among women, her devotion to him and his high regard for her is apparent in her visualizations of their romance.
The situation in Germany was becoming harder and harder for the Jewish community. Moreover, relations with her stepmother were not as good as before, and Salomon grew gloomier and darker after she left the Academy. On November 9, 1938, the fatal Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") erupted all over Germany. Jewish homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, and synagogues were attacked, ransacked, and demolished with great violence. Economic and political persecutions followed, and Salomon's father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for a short time. When he returned to his family, he was a traumatized and broken man - with nearly half his body weight lost - he urged his daughter to leave Germany.
Early in 1939, Salomon left Berlin for Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France, where her grandparents had fled in 1934. They were both living at the villa L'Ermitage, "a beautiful, large property of several houses, terraced gardens, and small waterfalls" owned by a generous American woman, Ottilie Moore, who welcomed many Jewish refugees from Germany. Salomon was warmly greeted by her relatives and Moore. However, after her grandmother's attempted suicide in September 1939, Salomon and her grandparents ultimately decided to leave, settling in Nice. Unfortunately, her grandmother's mental health was precarious. Out of fear and anger, Salomon's grandfather revealed the truth about her mother's suicide, exposing that Salomon was the sole heir to a long line of family members who committed suicide. The news was a shock for Salomon, who feared succumbing to the same tragic end herself. Salomon and the grandfather grew more vigilant towards her grandmother, but eventually her grandmother succeeded in her fatal goal, jumping out a window. She killed herself in the same manner as her own mother and uncle, as well as her two daughters.
In June 1940, the Vichy regime in France - the southern part of the country unoccupied by Nazi forces - signed an armistice with Germany and reversed many of its liberal policies. Salomon resided in this supposed "free zone," and was thus subject to the new laws that ordered French police to round up Jews and other "undesirables" and to recognize German nationals as enemies. As such, Salomon and her grandfather were sent to an internment camp in Gurs, located in the Pyrenees mountains, where philosopher Hanna Arendt was also detained. The trip was hard, the old man was sick, and the artist was distraught by the situation. At the camp, conditions were dismal - essentials like running water were scarce and diseases like typhoid were abundant - and fear was pervasive. Luckily, both Salomon and her grandfather were released a month after arriving due to his health condition and immediately returned to Nice.
Upon her return, the artist suffered an intense nervous breakdown, unable to cope with the information about her family, her increasing anger at her grandfather, and the lingering trauma of her recent internment. She visited Dr. George Moridis, a psychologist who had also helped and relieved Salomon's grandmother. Dr. Moridis suggested that she paint in order to save herself. Salomon then faced a dilemma between life and death, and finally decided "I will live for them all." Throughout 1942, Salomon moved alone into a hotel room in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where she dedicated her time and strength to a monumental project that would become her seminal artwork: Life? or Theater?
Salomon created an immense visual drama that teetered on the edge between autobiography and fiction. Following the form of a Singspiel, or operetta, and titled Life? or Theater?, her work consists of 769 gouaches chosen and numbered from a total of more than 1200 paintings she produced in just a few months. Salomon modeled her characters after real people in her life, hiding their true identities with playful nicknames, since many were prominent individuals within the Jewish community. Drawing upon her knowledge of drama, music, lyric and poetry, and, of course, drawing and painting, Salomon used her isolation in France to produce an enormous visual record of her personal life, family history, and impressive imagination, while simultaneously documenting the dramatic, tragic events unfolding in Europe around her.
By November 1942, France had become fully occupied by Germany and their Italian allies. The area where Salomon lived was controlled by the Italian forces, which had not been deporting Jews from the country. In this relative safety, after the completion of her work, the artist returned to Villefranche-sur-Mer. Moore had fled, taking several recused children with her in her car to Portugal, where she then boarded a ship bound for New York. Salomon went back to live at the L'Ermitage, where she met Alexander Nagler, a friend of Moore and fellow refugee who was entrusted with the care of the children Moore left behind. Salomon's grandfather was still in Nice, so she often went to visit him. The man was harder and harder to be with, distressed by his life and by the whole situation. These visits were hard for Salomon. In a lengthy letter she called her "Confession," made public in its entirety only in 2015, she wrote that she poisoned him during one of these visits in February 1943. Whether or not her account is completely true is impossible to know, but given her resentment towards him and rumors of his sexual abuse lend credibility to her confession. At any rate, the death of her grandfather was a relief to the artist.
At the L'Ermitage, Salomon and Nagler fell in love, though he was thirteen years her senior. She got pregnant, and they decided to marry in June 1943 in the Nice Town Hall. In September of that year, Italy surrendered and Germany took the region back, and, subsequently, Nazis started to intensify their search for Jews in the area. Only a few weeks after her marriage, Salomon gave her completed work of art, wrapped carefully in brown paper packages, to Dr. Moridis. Interrupting him at dinner, she handed him the packages, telling him, "Keep these safe. They are my whole life." The doctor did indeed keep the work safe through the war. One day, Salomon and Nagler were anonymously reported, and soldiers came to take them on September 23, 1943. They were first taken to the deportation camp of Drancy, outside Paris, then deported on a cattle car to Auschwitz. Salomon, who was five months pregnant, was gassed the day she arrived on October 10, 1943. She was only twenty-six years old. Her husband died of exhaustion three months later.
Salomon's parents survived her. They had lived in hiding in Amsterdam since 1940, after they escaped the Westerbork concentration camp. They only learned about Salomon's death after the war, traveling to Villefranche in 1947 to visit the last places where their daughter lived. At the L'Ermitage, they met Ottilie Moore who had returned from the United States and had received the precious packages of Salomon's artwork from Dr. Moridis. Moore showed the works to Albert and Paula. Deeply moved and amazed, they discovered a life and a person they didn't know about. The American, after much hesitation, gave the works to them.
In 1961, Albert and Paula organized the first show of Salomon's works. It was a huge success. Alfred, her first love - although Paula later circulated the story of their romance as only fictional - had spent the war in London and discovered the works at that time, not knowing his major role in Salomon's story and life. In 1971, Salomon's parents decided to bequeath all her works to the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, where they are still kept to this day.
The Legacy of Charlotte Salomon
Although numerous works have been published about Charlotte Salomon, the scholarship is still very recent, with many private details of her life and work only recently coming to light. Moreover, many of Salomon's works, besides Life? or Theater?, have been lost.
What she has left us, though, is a powerful testament of her inner life, experience in the world, and her artistic talents. She seemed to have embodied the Wagnerian concept of the total artwork, combining several means of expression. Her work has been a source of inspiration for other creative projects. Several plays based on her life and work have been created since the 1980s. In 1981, a fictional movie by Frans Weisz entitled Charlotte, was released, then Weisz also made a documentary about Salomon in 2011. In 2014, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, a French composer, dedicated an opera based on Life? or Theater?, with gouaches from the work included in the performance in the form of projections. In 2015, an opera-ballet was also created. Novels, like Charlotte by French writer David Foenkinos, were also written, showing the impact of Salomon's life and art on a wide range of people.
Salomon is neither a self-taught nor an outsider artist, for she received an artistic education and remains in the mainstream of art. Neither is she just a Holocaust artist. While her work testifies the experience of Nazi control and wartime, it also displays distinct artistic skills and a capacity for creative expression. The circumstances of its creation combined with the personality and life of its creator make the work extraordinary and unclassifiable. For the one hundredth anniversary of the artist's birth, the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam organized a large-scale retrospective dedicated to Salomon finally exhibiting the entirety of Life? or Theatre? for the first time. It was on view from October 2017 through March 2018,