Three hundred of Charlotte Salomon’s beautiful expressionist paintings illustrating a young German Jewish women’s self-discovery can be seen at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum until July 31. The same week that the San Francisco exhibit opened, an enormous comic book convention nearby attracted thousands of young readers searching for their latest superhero (Green Lantern this year) and his predecessors. I would like to report that all the comic book readers paraded a few blocks across town to pay homage to Salomon’s landmark project, “Life? or Theatre?,” after hearing that her gouaches painted in 1942 anticipated contemporary graphic novels and the films based on them.
Regrettably few of the comic book acolytes left their convention center, as far as I know; but Salomon already has quite a following, thanks to prior exhibits of her masterwork in other cities. First brought to public attention in 1971 by the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, the series of 1,300 paintings was celebrated over a decade ago at New York’s Jewish Museum, as well as at Boston and Toronto exhibitions. (Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum, repository of the collection, organized the selections in the current West Coast premiere.) By now Salomon’s work also has been well documented in scholarly books, and inspired a fine play by Elise Thoron and a volume of poems by Anne Barrows.
The hundreds of small paintings that constitute “Life? or Theatre?” deserve continued attention, as their story rivals Anne Frank’s renowned account of a young Jewish woman coming of age amid the horrors of Nazism. Charlotte Salomon drew on her own life and that of her relatives in Germany and France to develop the fictional narrative about a young woman named Charlotte Kann, illuminated through expressionistic visuals and German texts replete with dialogue and description.
Salomon recounts the suicide of young Charlotte’s mother (a stand in for Solomon’s own mother), and depicts the artistically inclined daughter falling in love with her new step-mother’s singing teacher, Amadeus Daberlohn. The tale introduces scenes of Nazi ascension to power and persecution of Jews, including the arrest and release of Charlotte’s father. When Daberlohn praises Charlotte’s promise as a visual artist, she is ecstatic; whereas a number of her family members took their own lives, the young woman chooses art instead of self-destruction. Salomon too reinvents her life, and drafts it as a series of operetta scenes, with herself as the principal scene designer and librettist. She reportedly told a friend, whom she asked to hold her master artwork, “Take good care of it, it is my life.”
The gouaches vary considerably in color and detail, changing with the emotional state of their main character. The dark browns and greens of melancholy yield to brighter more joyful hues, especially in one of the most inviting panels, #74, which features multiple self-portraits of the artist drawing a picture. Filled with giant sunflowers, a huge green wooden chair, and finished canvases, #74 might be called an “unstill life,” as its images of three Charlottes seated next to each other constitute a form of animation. The text accompanying this painting celebrates Charlotte’s moment of self-discovery: “Perhaps I could learn to draw, that might be just the thing.” Her resolve lifts Charlotte out of an otherwise unpromising future full of desolation and war.
Charlotte Kann’s story acquired additional meaning over time, as it became Charlotte Salomon’s triumph over the forces that would have silenced her and ended her family’s history. Completed by the artist in 1942 during a frenzy of painting in a St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France, hotel room, the 1300 small paintings on paper surfaced after 26-year-old Salomon’s death in Auschwitz. While not quite prophetic, a moment in Chapter Four of Charlotte’s tale anticipates the fate of its creator. A German sculptor discussing the dire future under Hitler’s reign vows: “I’ll go to the United States and become the greatest sculptor in the world.”
Charlotte herself says nothing about her future at that point in the story; but it turns out all the characters Salomon depicted have arrived in the United States, where they reside at present in San Francisco, and deserve to be welcomed in all their operatic splendor.
View a slideshow of images from ‘Charlotte Salomon: Life or Theater?’: