Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?
ArtWay Visual Meditation 7 May 2023
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?
With Death in Hot Pursuit
by Willem de Vink
The picture story is a special art form. Graphic novels induce us to looking and reading slowly. Sometimes the artists permit us a special look into their life. That is the case with Life? or Theatre? by Charlotte Salomon. Between 1940 and 1942 she painted her life story on paper in 769 drawings, to which she overlayed 320 transparent tracing papers with text. The title Life? or Theatre? indicates that she had envisioned that her work would be performed on the stage. She never had the opportunity to see it staged, but also the drawings in themselves form already a gripping work of art.
Charlotte Salomon lived in Berlin as a Jewish-German student at the academy of the arts. When the Nazis came to power, she fled to her grandparents in France. Once there, she started the work that would become an impressive visual testimony to her brief existence. Death is in hot pursuit. She tries to hang on to her life by embedding it in text, drawings and music.
The drawings convey a torrent of events. With firm brushstrokes she paints scenes that are full of figures in all kinds of attitudes and diverse situations. Sometimes she also puts a chain of events on paper, as in an animated film. The work is full of rhythm and movement. The pieces of paper are numbered and all the same size. The texts are overlayed like a voice-over. There are dialogues, directions, and references to music. We know from bystanders that the young artist hummed and sang as she put her ideas on paper. The total is a lot like a comic book, or even more like a storyboard. She wanted it to become a play about her own life, perhaps even an opera.
On the drawing above we see Charlotte’s great dedication to her work. She bends over the print of this page. The text she added to it, reads (translated from German): ‘Even if it drives me crazy, I must get it out there the way I want it. Still the print, still the print is not, not good.’
On paper Charlotte tells about her youth, the members of her family and other people in her acquaintance, and about her infatuations and dreams. In and amongst these the threat of war becomes palpable. She paints the pictures in blue, yellow, and red. With this limited use of colour she evokes a certain unity, although she gradually begins to work in a more and more hurried manner. The closer the work comes to completion, the more direct, dark and wild everything becomes. At the end you can see how hurriedly she is working, as if she is afraid that she will lose her ideas. It seems that she intuits that her life will be short. Panic grips her when she hears how many women in her family have committed suicide. She draws how also her own grandmother, with whom she resides, attempts suicide. On the last sheets of paper, Charlotte tries to change her grandmother’s mind. After she has pictured how that proved a failure, she says to her grandfather, on one of her last pictures, “You know, granddad, I have the feeling that they had to reassemble the whole world anew.”
In 2017, when I saw Salomon’s original drawings that were hung in sequence throughout the basement of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, I felt the fear and the despair. And yet, those few words that she had entrusted to paper at the end also gave me hope. The whole world will be renewed. The Bible nourishes our imagination to look forward to that renewal. In the meantime God is with us, and as a result of that death is no more than a passing shadow. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
Charlotte Salomon was five months pregnant when she was killed in Auschwitz. She was murdered on the very day she arrived there. Her graphic novel was preserved, as were the words she expressed to her granddad.
For further reading: Psalm 23; Psalm 139; Isaiah 25:7-9; 1 Corinthians 15:12-54; Revelation 21, 22:1-5.
Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?, 1940-1942, 796 gouache drawings, 32,5 x 25 cm, Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, NL. A book is also available.
Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) grew up in a bourgeois German-Jewish milieu in Berlin. She lived a carefree life as a young girl until the assumption of power by the national socialists in 1933. Nevertheless, she almost completed her studies at the Academy of Art. In January 1939 Charlotte fled Berlin and travelled to her grandparents in the South of France. They had already left Nazi Germany in 1933. In 1940, after the start of the Second World War, her grandmother committed suicide. Only then was Charlotte told that her mother had also ended her life in 1926. The 24-years-old Charlotte processed this turbulent family history and her experiences as a Jewess in Berlin in an extraordinary manner. In her distress she thought back to her lover, singing teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn (1896-1962). He told her, among other things, that in order to love life completely, she would have to embrace and understand its opposite – death. She decided to save herself by means of his ideas and as an alternative to suicide to undertake ‘something totally, insanely eccentric.’ She withdrew herself completely and began to paint in an unprecedented, creative explosion. In this way, she gradually recreated her life. She used everything she had inside of her: her artistry, her visual and musical memory, her insight into the personalities of the members of her family, her intellectual baggage, humour, and the inspiration she drew from her love for Wolfsohn. Read more
Willem de Vink (Utrecht, b.1957) is a speaker, writer, and artist. His cartoon Jezus Messias (Jesus the Messiah) has already been published in more than 200 languages. He also wrote a book entitled Dit is liefde, Vincent, about the impact of Jesus in the life of Vincent van Gogh. He recently published the book In het hoofd van de maker, Creativiteit, Kunst, Kerk (In the Mind of the Maker, Creativity, Art, Church).
ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.
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For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists