- Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? A Selection of 450 GouachesOur PickBy Judith C. E. Belinfante, Evelyn Benesch / This is the most recent book published on Salomon
- Life? Or Theather?By Charlotte Salomon / This is the first complete edition of the art of Salomon published for the centenary of her birth
- To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi EraBy Mary Lowenthal Felstiner
- Reading Charlotte SalomonBy Michael P. Steinberg, Monica Bohm-Duchen
Important Art by Charlotte Salomon
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.
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.
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.