5. Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?”

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5. Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?”

It is Mary Lowenthal Felstiner’s research into the extraordinary autobiographical operetta of Charlotte Salomon which begins to provide a direction and a satisfying answer to my questions. Salomon, a German Jew, fled Berlin for the still–unoccupied French Riviera in 1939, and lived there for three years as a refugee until her deportation.

She died in Auschwitz. But between 1940 and 1942,she painted 1,325 notebook-sized gouaches, accompanied by textual narration and musical cues, the words first carefully painted onto transparent overlays which fit over each picture, then onto the paintings themselves. Of these, she selected 769 paintings, arranged them into acts and scenes, and titled the final work Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?), with the subtitle Ein Singespiel (APlay with Music/An Operetta).

The heroine of this singular work is named Charlotte Kann, which translates from the German into Charlotte Able, and indeed, the life she painted was her own, in more than one sense. She indicated the significance of her work, not only as a visual record of the Nazi era, but as thekey to her own existence, when she said to a friend as she packed it away, “Keep this safe. It is my whole life.101 In 1947, Charlotte’s father and stepmother returned to the Riviera to look for their daughter, and found her paintings,still safe on the estate where Charlotte had lived. The work melds in astonishing fashion the encroaching terror of Nazism and Salomon’s own trauma…one connected,in her case, directly and intimately with female self-articulation and subjectivity.

Felstiner discovered the work of Salomon in Amsterdam in the seventies, and recalls that her initial impression was one of rapture and of astonishment: “Why had I never heard of this?”102 In the articles which followed,and in her 1994 biography To Paint her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era, Felstiner became as occupied with answering that question as with decoding and describing the transformation of Salomon’s life through, and into, art. The answer to Felstiner’s query has to do with the overwhelming complexity of Salomon’s invented oeuvre and with the failure of early efforts to do it justice;with the reluctance to let another, undeniably adult figure tamper with Anne Frankesque messages of uplift and portrayals of a victim’s consciousness, and with Felstiner’s growing suspicion that the issue of gender is much more than amere coda to the study of the Shoah, that it is central to piercing realizations concerning the first truly modern genocide, and that the reluctance to study it is stems from more than mere sexism: it is an expression of dread.

But before turning to these points it is necessary to examine Salomon, and Felstiner’s study of Salomon in depth. What makes Felstiner’s own work as provocative as that of her subject is her shift from analyzing and describing Life? or Theater? as an autobiography in art, to the realization that it is, on the contrary, an artwork,the medium of which is autobiography.103 As Judith C.E. Belinfante succinctly remarks in a 1992 catalogue of Salomon’s work published jointly by the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam and the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, “Charlotte Salomon used her life story to create a unique work of art.”104

The vivid nature of To Paint her Life–a work which permits Felstiner’s immense love for Salomon and her rage at her murder to flow freely, which combines artistic analysis with historical recapitulation of events and social theory–is in the realization of this: besides paint and paper, Charlotte Salomon manipulated character portrayal,self-awareness, self-composition, identification, and a life, in order to create a theatrical spectacle, a “soul-piercing work” (in Salomon’s own words) which demanded an audience at a historical moment when audience was inconceivable. The title of the work is Life? or Theater?, and to the end, the author/artist refuses to resolve the question. That is precisely the point which Felstiner brings out,and does not betray.

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin on April 16, 1917, the only daughter of a prominent surgeon, Albert Salomon, and his wife, Franziska Grunwald. In 1913, Franziska’s beloved younger sister Charlotte had drowned herself. In the papers and among family and friends, the death was not spoken of as a suicide. In her grief, Franziska turned to a nursing career (and intriguingly, the word for nurse in German–Schwester–is the same as that for sister), and so met Salomon. When the couple had their first and only child, Franze named her Charlotte.

In the winter of 1925-1926, Franziska threw herself out the window of the Salomon’s fourth-floor apartment. Again, no mention of suicide appeared in the obituary, and Charlotte was told that her mother had died of influenza. It took thirteen years before anyone would tell her the truth. Dr. Salomon met and married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg, in 1930, and by all reports (including Charlotte’s own) the lovely Paula soon won over her quiet young stepdaughter.

When Germany turned Nazi, when Hitler was named chancellor in January 1933, the effect was devastatingly felt by the Salomons. Charlotte’s identity as a “full Jew,” (all four grandparents, as defined by Nazi race science), increased her vulnerability to anti-Semitic hostility in her school. But the Salomons, like so many other German Jews, adjusted: Albert continued as a surgeon for the Jewish Hospital; Paula began to sing with the all-Jewish Kulturbund, a cultural organization founded by her colleague Kurt Singer, who had recently been dismissed from his position as the director of the Berlin City Opera.

More remarkably, in the winter of 1935-1936 Charlotte Salomon was admitted to the State Art Academy in Berlin, as the only student of “100%Jewish blood.’105 At the Academy, Charlotte learned the Nazi-approved anti-modern techniques, but was probably, to judge from her work, much more inspired by the modern art books miraculously still available in the Academy’s library and by the infamous 1938 “Degenerate Art” show put on by the government and featuring some of the most provocative works of German expressionism, cubism,and the other artistic “isms” which flourished so luxuriously in the first part of the twentieth century.106 But by November 8, 1938, Kristallnacht, she had left the Academy; a prize for which she had been nominated had been diverted to another student, for fear of calling attention to Charlotte’s Jewishness. It was clear that her continued enrollment would place her in too much jeopardy.

In January 1939, after the “Night of the Broken Glass,” after Albert Salomon had been temporarily interned in Sachsenhausen (and released only thorough the untiring efforts of Paula, who called up all her dramatic presence and considerable charm to plead his case), Charlotte Salomon was abruptly packed off to the coast of southern France to stay with her mother’s parents, the Grunwalds.107

In September 1939, Charlotte’s grandmother stole into the bathroom and put her neck in a noose. Charlotte found her there, near death. As Grossmama Grunwald lay recuperating in the next room, Charlotte’s grandfather told her the truth about her ghastly legacy. This was the moment when Charlotte Salomon began to paint her life.

In 1988, Felstiner wrote, by way of introduction to Charlotte Salomon:

Charlotte was 23 and a refugee when she learned that the women in her family–her mother’s sister, her mother’s aunt, her mother’s cousin, and her mother–had killed themselves. From 1926, when Charlotte’s mother took her life,till 1939, when her mother’s mother tried to take hers too, the family kept its suicides secret for fear of perpetuating them. Chances were that whatever struck her relatives would take Charlotte too, and unawares. So the recovery of a silenced past became her project, her protection.108

In 1994, her description,gleaned from years of study of the pages devoted to this incident in Charlotte’s work, is far more expressive of the young woman’s pain and horror:

Soon after Grossmama’s suicide attempt, Grosspapa spilled the secret kept for thirteen years, not caring how it hurt. In this family of yours, he tells Charlotte in the scenes, every single person commits suicide…As he delivers the shock of Charlotte’s life, the grandfather’s words snake around him, till deine Mutter,”your mother,” stops just over his head. His face–then six of them, twelve,twenty–turn to gray slabs, show up tragic, then malevolent, then drain blank.While his lament goes on, Grossmama veers, disjointed, off the bed, and Charlotte sheds all identity of her own, down to two colors and an outline, as deprived of features as she had been of facts. In this unguarded state, like a blank surface waiting to be etched, she has to absorb the family legacy.

I knew nothing of all that.”

Now she knew. The traumatic revelation out at last.109

There is no way to decipher the truth except by examining the story left by Charlotte; until now, the facts of her life are a matter of public record, or easily confirmed by Berlin acquaintances or by her still surviving stepmother.After September 1939, all we know is what Charlotte Salomon painted. But what she painted kept her alive and sane, at least for a time, in a poisonous and insane world.

Life? or Theater? is divided into three parts–a Prelude, a Main Part, andan Epilogue. The Prelude is devoted primarily to exquisitely detailed scenes from Charlotte’s childhood, the Main Part to Alfred Wolfsohn, Paula’s voice teacher(and, apparently, Charlotte’s first lover) and Charlotte’s discovery of his ideas about art and the soul, and the Epilogue to Charlotte’s life on the Cote d’Azur. The style varies considerably: the earlier paintings are delightfully colorful and bear witness to Charlotte’s extraordinary memory for the places of her childhood. Gradually the paintings become more and more abstract as her focus shifts from material memories to psychological complexities.110 The difference between the paintings of her mother’s suicide (imagined) and those of her grandmother’s (witnessed) is of that between a child’s misty sense of loss and an adult’s searing pain. The former are sad, but still delicately drawn and tinted,and despite the story they tell, beautiful. [See plates 1 and 2.] The paintings of Charlotte’s grandmother’s suicide are almost too painful to look at: outlines and washes of raw color kept barely under control. [See plates 3–5.]

Much of the work deals specifically with the experiences of female consciousness: with that of her mother, whose life she now had to re-imagine entirely, and with that of her grandmother, whom she tried (and failed) to save. She juxtaposes memories of her own childhood with her newly informed perception of her mother’s burden, both as a woman and as the heir to a mysteriously seductive and ghastly legacy. She imagines the pain of her grandmother at the loss of both her daughters, and now of the order and comprehensibility of her world. Yet the narrative is delicately but firmly disassociated from Salomon: the autobiographical “I,” in the text accompanying the paintings, becomes a fictional “she”–a principal character named Charlotte Kann, interpreted by an unseen narrator named The Author.111

What appears most remarkable, however, is that this thematic focus on gender occurred precisely in a situation where gender had become hardly the sole determinant of Salomon’s future:

Otherness (to use Simone de Beauvoir’s term for the female condition) certainly determined the lot of Charlotte Salomon, but more because she was Jewish and exiled than female. Relative to those conditions, a female identity–usually considered the least variable of features–was not forced upon her. To some extent, she could choose female affiliations; she could try out variants of female behavior through her characters. So female identity surfaces in Life? or Theater? not because Charlotte Salomon was born woman but because woman was one part she could still play.112

According to the authorities of Salomon’s day, suicide–female suicide in particular–was attributed to madness,and madness to weakness and inferiority. Charlotte rejected that definition outright, and chose to see her grandmother as an atrophied spirit, wasting away for lack of love and engagement with the world. In the paintings, Charlotte attempts to save her grandmother through a recourse to art and to beauty,spending time crooning to the old woman about the loveliness of the sun and the flowers, trying to cultivate within her a will to live, but does not succeed.113 As with her mother, Charlotte loses her grandmother to despair and to an open window, and realizes with astonishing clarity the depth of the world’s cruelty towards women.114


Seeing the bloodied body on the ground, Charlotte knows at once how her mother was torn apart; in one vision she grasps two fatal falls…From that moment Charlotte starts muttering through her days and nights, “I hate the mall!” and she is not referring to the fascists. No one in her family has ever trusted her…They [Albert and Paula Salomon] urged her…not to worry about the family legacy. Her maternal line had “degenerated,” as her father would show her in medical books one day, but she should remember she inherited vigorous stock from him…Anxiously [Albert and Paula] showed her letters to psychiatrists in Amsterdam who told them to send supplies so she could paint. In a letter just before invasion cut them off in May 1940, Lotte answered for herself: “I will create a story so as not to lose my mind.”

That story put its stress on women’s grief and wartime dread, never on genetic flaws.115

For Charlotte, suicide was a double threat–not only a maternal legacy, but an ever–present question in the mind of the exile community: “As destructive forces radiated outward, exiles could not escape their choice: You may kill yourself or you may watch yourself(your nation, your people) be killed. Her own view added female defenselessness and family disorder to the ‘world…filled with pain’ that had crushed her grandmother.”116

The question was, as Charlotte declares, “whether to take her life or undertake something wildly eccentric.”117 She chose the latter, and retreated into herself, writing that “The war raged on and I sat by the sea and saw deep into the heart of humankind. I was my mother my grandmother indeed I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all paths and became myself.”118 Exhaustively, she attempted to detail the cruel female world. In order to fight the charge of madness, she must identify with her suicidal ancestry, even though doing so means to take the risk of receiving their inheritance. “Her autobiography,” exulted Felstiner in 1988, “embraced the female condition when historical circumstances recapitulated it.”119

But that this artist came very close to losing her struggle is clear in her paintings, and in Felstiner’s later assessments. “In torpor, rage, and grief,”‘ she writes, “CS slowly let her character exit from the center of the scenes:”

Halfway through the Main Part, the painter lost any focus on Charlotte’s face, rotated the angle to show others instead of her, cropped her three-quarters out of the frame, portrayed her body without a head, and only twice delivered her words around repeated faces [note: a favorite technique of Salomon]–and these faces in profile with one ear, no hair,one eye. By the Epilogue, the central character fuses with her grandmother and loses most features of her own…Though an author’s voice asserts itself awhile onthe overlays, even the narrator slips out toward the end, leaving disembodied words filling the space.120

The condition of exile is one of the utmost isolation. Countless manuscripts were produced by the exiles on the French Riviera in these years, and, as we have seen, even those already trapped in the camps who were not too starved or too crazed continued to write, to create poetry, to draw pictures. All of these activities imply an audience, maybe notnow, but someday… The theatrics of Salomon’s technique, Felstiner has suggested,speak as well to the “stage-like ambiance,”121 to the eerie unreality of an unofficial existence. “The movement of memoir toward operetta–surely a unique turn–draws our attention to a phenomenon not uncommon in Holocaust diaries and self–portraits: the invention of a captive audience and of rhetorical devices to keep it there.”122 On a painting which Charlotte edited out of her final version(but which is still part of the collection in the Joods Historisch Museum), her address to this audience mimics the over determined and alienating narration of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater: “You are hereby informed that you are located in an exclusively Jewish milieu which–for the honor of Germany–was assaulted at that time by one party…Hitler was the name of the founder and creator of this party.In common parlance the party’s supporters were simply called Nazis. Their symbol was the swastika.”123 As Felstiner notes, “No European needed to be told this:such writing presents an ineluctable fact as the prologue to a show…It is on this metaphorical level that a work of art encodes its ethos. As Life or Theater?placed a theatrical cast over historical facts, it attested to a quality of the Cote d’Azur that more objective documents fail to express: the place itself seemed staged.”124

Many of the dramatic devices of Charlotte’s work were not there from the beginning, but were invented when she was already deep into the process. In the frontispiece to the work (surely painted once the work itself had been completely edited and assembled), Charlotte writes that “Even I needed a year to figure out the meaning of this singular work, for many of its texts and melodies, especially in the first sheets, have slipped my mind,”125 and Felstiner explains:

On the backs of those first sheets she had often penciled musical and textual comments. But a year or so later, she expanded these notations,transferred them onto transparent sheets, and taped them over the paintings. The transparencies introduce the characters, direct the dialogues, order the action with numbers and arrows, mark out acts and scenes. It would be hard to imagine a more graphic invention for staging a story while keeping its director on the set.In other words, as “the meaning of this singular work” came to the artist, she moved the dramatic signifiers from the back of the paintings right out front. She apparently decided to unwrap a private memoir, to render transparent to others what would otherwise remain opaque.126

Or to turn what had been, despite its unusual medium, an autobiography, into a work of art, and to discover a fitting title: “Life? or Theater?”

It was this move which rescued Charlotte from despair and which permitted her to complete her project. Surely, it is linked to a terrible, yet strangely touching episode which occurred in the summer of 1942,when Charlotte came out of hiding and willingly presented herself to the authorities as a Jew. Madame Pecher, in whose hotel Charlotte was living at the time, remembers the incident:

A law at the time obliged foreign Jews and I think French ones too, to present themselves to the authorities…So she went to Nice to say she was Jewish. I asked her, ‘Why go and present yourself?” She told me,’Because there is a law, and since I’m Jewish, I thought it was correct to present myself.’ So that was her conviction. That’s how I learned she was a Jew.127

This story nearly ended in horror–Charlotte was being placed on a bus to an unknown destination when a gendarme, for whatever reason, looked at her and told her to get off and go back, quickly. The final destination of that bus, of course, was Poland, but the Jews in France did not yet understand that. It is possible that this episode was merely a reflection of Charlotte’s deep depression and anomie. But it fits neatly, this decision to “present herself,” with the outward, boldly declarative turn her work had now taken. Charlotte was not naive.Perhaps she could not resist this opportunity to do in real life what she endeavored to do in her work: to demand the acknowledgment of her existence.

After this event, however, Charlotte made haste to finish her play. It was quite clear that there was no longer any time to waste. She turned from painting pictures to filling her paper with words alone. She added a bitter signature to her introduction, her playbill:

The author
St Jean August 1941/1942
Or between heaven
and earth outside
our era in the year
1 of the
New Salvation.128

And yet, despite the reality outside Charlotte’s ability to create or modify, she had achieved two things of great worth: she had completed a monumental work of art, and she had managed to transform it from what would have been, at best, “a temporary reprieve,” into “a script for perpetual recurrence.”129 Life? or Theater? ends with these words:

She knew: she must disappear for a time out of the surface of life and make everysacrifice to bring forth her world anew out of the depths.And from there came LIFE OR THEATER? 130

Salomon closes, in other words, at the moment at which she commences her work and the exploration of her matrilineage. Salomon herself was gassed at Auschwitz, probably within an hour after she had stepped off the train. But before she died, she managed to transform her life, and herself, into art.

The play’s final word-crammed pages send the character on ahead. Let Charlotte decide to paint the past and become the “living model” for Daberlohn’s axiom, quoted four different times: “You must first go into yourself–into your childhood–to be able to get out of yourself.” Let her discover what “suddenly she knew…She did not need to do away with herself like her ancestors, since a person could and should rise up after having died, to love life even more.” Let her take her life history instead of her life. 

This ending made sure she’d go on living her story at least.131

Felstiner’s analysis of Charlotte Salomon and her work is a profoundly feminist one. At all times, she stresses the autonomy of her subject; that Salomon strove to be the author, quite literally, of her own fate,despite the Nazis, despite the atmosphere of despair among the exile community,despite the seduction of suicide. Charlotte was able to take the suicides of the women in her family and analyze them, not as evidence of women’s hysteria or innate weakness, as the authorities of the day were wont to do, but as evidence of a deep need for affinity, for recognition of the difficulty of being a woman in that world. Charlotte’s family had erased these suicides–so many of them–from their collective memory, had refused to acknowledge them as such. It would have been easy for Charlotte to do the same, easy and almost fitting for her to kill herself. She painted as a strategy to save her life and as a means to restore a sort of life to her mother and grandmother–at least to portray the how and why of their deaths. As she painted, she became aware of the decisions she made in painting her life–what to paint, how to paint it, which self was spoke and which looked out from the pages–and chose, in the end, to bring these issues out to the forefront, to highlight their manipulation and make them identifiable elements of her work, and so to transform autobiography into art.

High on a cliff grow pepper trees–softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies and melts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams–my dreams on a blue background. What makes you shape and reshape yourself so brightly from so much pain and suffering? Who gave you the right?Dream, speak to me–whose lackey are you? Why are you rescuing me? High up on a cliff grow pepper trees. Softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves.132

These are not the points which the reviewers of Life? or Theater? have chosen to make. The first English-language edition of Charlotte’s work came out in 1963, under the title Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures, and containing eighty reproductions,133 with brief captions culled from the original lengthy narration. Felstiner’s comments on this book are revealing:

Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures…was welcomed to confirm the lesson of Anne Frank: humane spirits outlast monstrous ones. In the righteous mood after the Nuremberg trials, Anne Frank’s “I still believe that people are really good at heart” became the victims’ most quoted phrase. Her accusations went unnoticed, like CS’s irony. The 1963 book omitted the skeptical title Life? or Theater?, ignored the irreverent captions, and closed with a picture exulting, “God my God oh is that beautiful” in place of CS’s somber finale–“She knew: for a while she had to disappear from the surface of life.”134

The preface to this book, by Paul Tillich, indeed strikes the note familiar to the readers of Anne Frank: it is a testimonial to the simplicity, the youth, the sensitivity of Charlotte Salomon,and like the initial reviews of Diary of a Young Girl, insists that the primary nature of Charlotte’s work is personal, not political:

I was drawn into a human life that began and ended far away, but in which nothing was strange to me. For in these pictures and notes there is something universally human, something that bridges the distance between man and man. But what makes this life a true symbol is something more than its universality. It is specifically the life of a very gifted and sensitive young woman, lived in one of the most terrible periods of European history, that speaks in the almost primitive simplicity of these pictures. One reason why they are so expressive is that instead of concentrating on the horrors of the end, they tell a life story that is close to our own experience. Against the background of this story, Charlotte’s fate–known to us from others–moves us all the more deeply.135

Tillich suggests here that the depiction of Charlotte’s life serves primarily as a foil to the historical events unfolding around her. The supposed familiarity of her life–as reflected in what Tillich sees as the “primitive simplicity” of her really very complex and multi-layered paintings–permits the work to transcend its own particularity and Charlotte to come to represent, like Anne Frank, all the victims of the Holocaust. Moreover, once more, the ultimate value of Charlotte Salomon’s own unique voice is its ability to submit to a “higher purpose”–universality, here all too revealingly defined as bridging “the distance between man and man.”Charlotte’s painstaking attempt to depict, as vividly as she could, the specifically female affiliations of her life, her clever theatrics, her irony and wit, are lost here.

In 1981, the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam (to which Albert and Paula Salomon had made a gift of the paintings in 1971) put together a magnificent book, containing 769 color plates and full translations of Charlotte’s narration and dialogue, entitled Charlotte: Life or Theater? An Autobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon. Whereas A Diary in Pictures had attempted to summarize, and in the process had butchered, Charlotte’s work, the 1981 book simply reproduced all the paintings Charlotte herself had selected as the final edition, along with full translations of the accompanying texts.

With the appearance of this book came critical reception, and reviews in many of the most important forums, including The New York Times and the London Review of Books. The reviews, as with Diary of A Young Girl, were unanimously laudatory; as with the Diary, however, some tended to belittle Charlotte’s ambition and sought to narrow her scope:

It’s unlikely that she wanted to produce a wholly new kind of performance art, or that her opposition of life and theatre is as deeply pondered as that of Dichtung and Wahrheit in Goethe’s autobiography. A simpler explanation of the confused fictionality and reality of her book is just that Charlotte Salomon, with her range of talents, was naive enough to employ them all in trying to record her life.136

None of the reviews, moreover, make significant reference to Charlotte’s gender, and certainly none use the word “feminist” to describe her work. Had Felstiner not seen her work one day and found herself enraptured by its strength and scope, Charlotte Salomon might have remained merely a coda to Anne Frank, another example of the sensitivity and delicacy of “a young girl.” .

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