Published: January 30, 2001
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?
NEW YORK CITY – The first exhibition to be shown in New York of the work of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) is on view at The Jewish Museum through March 25, 2001. Conceived and first shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” is the first major exhibition in the US detailing the life of this remarkable yet little-known artist in a semi-autobiographical narrative.
Before Salomon died in Auschwitz at age 26, she created more than 1,300 gouaches, 769 of which comprise what the artist entitled “‘Life? or Theatre?’ A Play with Music.”
The exhibit includes nearly 400 of her riveting, small paintings as well as texts and musical references that illustrate a fictionalized version of Salomon’s short life including moments of intense happiness and love in the midst of a tragic family history and Nazi persecution. The Jewish Museum in New York is the final US venue for this important exhibition, which received acclaim in its recent showings at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
All the works in this exhibition have been lent by the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, (copyright) Charlotte Salomon Foundation.
“‘Life? or Theatre?’ A Play with Music” is the title that Salomon gave to a sequence of 769 gouaches she produced between 1940 and 1942. The gouaches in this unprecedented series read like storyboards for a film, following the events that shaped Salomon’s life and her identity as a daughter, a family member, a woman, and a Jew. It also serves as the artist’s death-defying response to learning of the suicides of her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt.
“I will create a story so as not to lose my mind,” Salomon wrote. Painted with only primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) and white, and mixing them to create vivid hues, the images are a fictionalized autobiography, incorporating as “characters” important and influential individuals in her life. Salomon’s compositions adapt many film techniques including long shots, close-ups, shifting perspective, cartoon-like registers, flashbacks, and montage.
The works are structured as scenarios set to specific pieces of classical, folk, and popular music and are annotated and intricately woven with narrative. Salomon claimed that tunes entered her head as she worked and that the painted images became equivalents for the music that inspired them.
The themes of the works reflect the events that had the greatest impact on Salomon emotionally; the family history of suicide and her mother’s death in particular, her relationship to her family and friends, the siege by the Nazis, and her intense love affair with an older man. Recurring images, such as the window through which her mother jumped to her death and through which Salomon perceived life, are central to the paintings.
The work is divided into a prelude, a main section, and an epilogue, and has a narrator and a cast of more than 20 characters closely based on their real-life counterparts. The artist’s formative years, up until the late 1930s, are covered in the prelude. This first section includes the suicide drowning in 1913 of Salomon’s aunt, but also scenes of her parents meeting, their courtship, marriage, and wedding night.
The main section contains over half of the paintings and covers the period from 1937 to 1939. It deals almost exclusively with Charlotte and her stepmother Paulinka’s encounter with the charismatic singing instructor, Alfred Wolfson, whom Salomon calls Amadeus Daberlohn. Wolfson was 41 when Salomon met him, and his ideas about the voice as a direct expression of the human soul profoundly affected her. His influence over her was manifold, and he became her first lover.
In this section, Salomon focuses on the complex, often troubled network of relationships and ideas that develop after he enters her life. As Daberlohn falls in love with her stepmother, a highly regarded contralto, he develops a relationship with Charlotte as well, realizing her aspirations as an artist could only enhance his own narcissistic greatness as a teacher.
The main section concludes with the horror and aftermath of Kristallnacht, which precipitates her parents sending Charlotte to stay with her grandparents in the apparent safety of the French Riviera. The work’s epilogue opens on a richly colored, positive note. However, the deceptively tranquil Riviera, which the Nazis called the “perfumed ghetto,” soon fails to insulate Charlotte from both the past and the imminent outbreak of World War II in September 1939.
Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917 into a middle-class Jewish family. She trained at the State Art Academy in Berlin from 1936 to 1938, but was forced by the Nazis to leave because she was Jewish. When World War II began in 1939, she was sent by her parents to live in the south of France with her grandparents. Interned with her grandfather in the French concentration camp of Gurs and released in 1940, Salomon returned to Nice and began working on “Life? or Theatre?” In 1943, Salomon married Alexander Nagler, another Jewish refugee, but the Nazis learned of their whereabouts from the filing of their marriage papers and deported them to Auschwitz.
Four months pregnant, Salomon was murdered immediately upon arrival at the concentration camp. Grace Glueck in The New York Times wrote that the artist defeated oblivion, “…leaving behind an astonishing work of art that transformed her life into a poignant opera of paintings, words, and music.”
Before her deportation, Salomon delivered her “play with music” into the trusted hands of a local physician active in the French Resistance, telling him to “take good care of it; it is my whole life.” Miraculously, the gouaches survived. Following the war, the works were returned to Salomon’s father and stepmother, who donated the entire collection to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam in 1972. “Life? or Theatre?” has been translated into four languages, made into a book (serving as the exhibition catalogue), and abridged in several catalogues. It has also served as the subject of several films, as well as the inspiration for biographical studies of Salomon.
“Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” has been curated by Norman Rosenthal, Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and Monica Bohm-Duchen, freelance writer and exhibition organizer. Mason Klein, Assistant Curator of Fine Arts at The Jewish Museum, has coordinated the exhibition in New York.
An 831-page catalogue, Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? accompanies the exhibition. Published by Waanders Publishers, the book reproduces the entire series of gouaches, and will be available in paperback in the Museum’s Cooper Shop for $50. Also included are essays by Monica Bohm-Duchen and Norman Rosenthal.
The Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Antenna Audio have created an audio guide for “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” which has been adapted by The Jewish Museum for the presentation in New York City. Excerpts of some of the musical references cited by the artist in her work, including Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, can be heard as well as Salomon’s texts, translated from German and French, and dramatized by the actress Tilda Swinton.
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