Charlotte Salomon: Vie? ou Théâtre?
For the first time ever the great German painter Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) is having an exhibition of her work in the South of France, where, while in refuge from Hitler and her home in Berlin, she created her hors de categorie masterwork “Leben? oder Theater?”—“Life? or Theatre?,” a series of autobiographical gouaches. This large exhibit is significant on several fronts: it not only includes close to three hundred of her beautiful, witty, often lyrical, devastating paintings (out of the nearly eight hundred that comprise the entire opus) but also includes various recently unearthed archival documents—some damning all chilling—relating to her time on the Cote d’Azur, in Villefranche-sur-mer, and her eventual denunciation, arrest, and deportation by the Gestapo.
The exhibit is beautifully presented in twelve rooms in the exquisite, and quite grand, Belle Epoque Musée Masséna—a French national landmark and government-run museum on the chic Promenade des Anglais, overlooking the same glistening waters of the Mediterranean that gave Salomon much solace. More often than not Salomon’s work is shown in Jewish institutions (her archive is housed at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam). This understandable categorization has contributed—along with other complex factors like her work being virtually unavailable on the open art market—to her astonishing absence in America not only as a general cultural reference (think Anne Frank), but even as a subject for the cognoscenti.
But the tide might be turning, and the exhibition at the Musée Masséna marks the culmination of an ongoing Salomon renaissance in France, where she has recently become almost a household name due to the enormous sales—half a million copies—of a short novel, Charlotte, based on her life by the writer David Foenkinos, and the publication of the definitive—and only complete—version of “Leben? oder Theater?” by the young and ambitious publisher Le Tripode (the editor, Frédéric Martin, invested the entire budget of his publishing house in the project). The current French obsession with a German-Jewish woman is a noteworthy bright light in a country ever contending with its dismal history of collaboration and anti-Semitism.
But ultimately “Leben? oder Theater?” is a masterpiece of ambition, stunning self-revelation, and piercing irony: think Munch’s “The Scream” by a woman, the backstory intact. That it is continuously, and profoundly, miscategorized as a work of Holocaust art raises the question: How can an artist’s work escape the shadow of her own murder?
In truth, Salomon’s oeuvre is one young woman’s shattering cri d’identité. “Humanity became too much for me,” she wrote, “I had to go further into solitude, completely away from everyone. Then maybe I could find what I had to find: namely, myself—a name for me.” And so she did. Salomon and her unborn child were gassed upon arrival in Auschwitz on October 10, 1943. She was twenty-six years old.
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Self-portrait, Charlotte Salomon, c. 1939
credit: Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; Charlotte Salomon Foundation.
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