Painting on the Precipice

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?

an exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, October 20, 2017–March 25, 2018
Charlotte Salomon/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam/Charlotte Salomon Foundation
Charlotte reflecting on her first love; paintings by Charlotte Salomon from Life? or Theatre?, 1940–1942

A woman walks down the red stairs of a tall roofless building. Her dress is almost black. Her hair is pulled back, her arms crossed against the cold, her face melancholy. She walks past denuded trees up a darkened street, curves into another, and another. The wind seems to be propelling her, tugging at her, so that at one point her hair tumbles free, her dress whirls. Lamplight turns pavement and road a stormy sea blue. As she comes closer her path is outlined in blood red, until red takes her over to transform her into a drowning figure in a blackened lake.

The next day the newspaper carries the headline “Suicide of Eighteen-Year-Old! Charlotte Seeks Death in Lake Schlachten!” The woman we now know as Charlotte appears laid out on a pinkish slab, floating like a Chagall bride. Mourners gather. There are only three of them, a stiff, bearded man and two other wretched huddled figures, a mother and an older daughter.

These are the first two of 871 extraordinary gouaches created by the young German artist Charlotte Salomon between 1940 and 1942. She is not the Charlotte of these opening images, only her namesake. But death perpetually tugs at this young woman, too, calling her to the soft, embracing sleep that prematurely swallowed so many members of her family, including the aunt she was named after.

Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte Salomon, together with her unborn child, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1943. Her painted images, executed under great internal and external pressure, make up a sequence that evokes her life and times. More memoir than autobiography, her book is an emotionally charged narrative that analyzes as well as depicts. It takes us on an epic journey in images, words, and music through two and a half decades of history that end in tragedy. This history as Gesamtkunstwerk may be Charlotte’s own, one conjured through memory, but it is far larger than the self. Salomon gives us a rare insight into the anxious life of the cultured German-Jewish bourgeoisie, assimilated yet still outsiders, as the Weimar Republic—plagued by patriarchal certainties and nostalgia—shattered into Nazi rule.

Salomon conceived of her book as a performance that poses a basic existential question: Life or theater? Among an array of masks—some hiding hypocrisy, others concealing secrets or simply allowing one to “pass,” an everyday part of life for Jews in an increasingly anti-Semitic environment—where might an authentic life lie? It is a young person’s anguished question: no answer may be possible, but through an exploration of it, realities are revealed.

The book is structured as a piece of experimental musical theater, Singspiel, or cabaret on paper, with three acts and three colors. Occasionally…

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