The Arty Semite

Murdered at Auschwitz, Charlotte Salomon Survives Through Her Art

By Joel Schechter

  • Print
  • Share Share
Gouache from “Life? Or Theatre?” Courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation.

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?’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Life or Theater?, Joel Schechter, Green Lantern, Exhibits, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Amadeus Daberlohn, Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte Kann, Visual Art

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.