When the young German-Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon gave Life? or Theatre?, her monumental, multi-layered gouache series of 769 artworks to her family doctor and friend for safekeeping, she requested he took good care of it as it was, “her entire life.” Shortly afterwards, she was deported to Auschwitz where, aged 26 and five-months pregnant, she was murdered.
It would be a couple of decades before Life? or Theatre? resurfaced and began to be exhibited to the public. The last major UK exhibition of the work was held at the Royal Academy in 1998 and now, for the first time since then, the Jewish Museum London will be presenting a selection of 236 gouaches (including 50 images not previously seen in the UK) from this remarkable, dramatised, painted semi-autobiography. The exhibition, opening today, 8 November, has been organised in collaboration with the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, which holds the archive.
“Charlotte Salomon was a great artist, an extraordinary modern pioneer who basically created a prototype of a graphic novel — in a way, in the image of someone like Giotto or Michelangelo,” says Dominik Czechowski, Head of Exhibitions at Jewish Museum London.
Created while Salomon was living in exile, and in hiding, in the south of France between 1940 and 1942, Life? or Theatre? portrays a story of endurance and survival.
It tells a story of growing up in Weimar Berlin, the rise of Nazism and the onset of the Second World War, referencing film, music and theatre.
Salomon also tells a deeply personal narrative — of a complicated family life including the multiple suicides of nearly all of her female relatives, hints of sexual abuse as well as accounts of unrequited love. But there is a vibrancy and playfulness, too. Inspired by Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel and artists, Chagall, Van Gogh and Munch, all of Life? or Theatre? is painted in primary colours — red, yellow and blue — with white occasionally applied to lighten the tone.
Although Salomon was one of a small number of Jews admitted to study at art school in Berlin, she was able to attend only for two years. By 1938, faced with Hitler’s antisemitic policies, it became too dangerous for her to continue.
Despite this, says Czechowski: “She shows high originality in her work and she’s doing it on her own, with little formal training, at a time of heightened danger and anxiety, against the backdrop of oppressive, political events.”
She depicts the date Hitler seized power, 30 January 1933, in an arresting image with crowds of people, in hues of orange, brown and red, marching behind a flag with what appears to be a swastika on it. She directs viewers to look at it in her accompanying text, ironically suggesting that the symbol is full of hope and, “the day of freedom and of bread dawns…”
However, as a few brush strokes of defiance show, she reversed the swastika to its original Hindu form as a symbol of peace. “While capturing this historic date, she wanted to subvert its meaning,” explains Czechowski. “She does it quite a lot in her work.”
Life? or Theatre? is divided into three parts: a Prelude, Main Section and an Epilogue, complete with acts and scenes. Subtitled, Ein Singspiel — a play with music, or a German form of operetta — aesthetically, she combines three elements: the musical citations, the text and the image, Czechowski explains.
“She’s pushing the modernist register and language even further by diversifying the paintings, from very dense and storyboard like, populated with scenes, to quite loose and abstract and then back to figurative again.”
The whole work is preceded by a cast of characters and she gives the protagonists — all of whom are significant and influential people in her life — fictional names, although there is little to distinguish the “characters” from their real-life identities. She even uses a pseudonym for herself: Charlotte Kann. But, she signs her work CS. “That’s the distinction. It’s a very conscious creation. It’s saying it’s by me, it’s my choice, my methodology.
The initials also point to the fact that she didn’t want to reveal her gender,” suggests Czechowski. “CS could be a male artist.”
Throughout the work, but mainly in the Prelude, Salomon wrote on transparent overlays, which are glued on one side, on top of their associated gouache.
“She called them explanation texts and they are meant to be seen together,” says Czechowski. Later, having appeared to run out of transparencies, she takes to writing on the actual paintings.
A large part of the main section concerns Charlotte Kann’s love for a singing teacher called Amadeus Daberlohn, with many paintings suggesting that they are lovers. This was wish fulfilment. In reality, Salomon was in love with Alfred Wolfsohn, who was her stepmother’s singing teacher but their relationship was non-sexual, believes Czechowski.
Several gouaches — included in the show — illustrate Amadeus’s encouragement and emotional and creative support for Charlotte to continue working as an artist. And Wolfsohn took Salomon’s work seriously and was one of the first people to tell Charlotte to paint, says Czechowski.
In one image, Amadeus is shown standing with Charlotte kneeling at his feet — a pose reminiscent of Christian iconography with a caption that reads: “May you never forget that I believe in you”.
Salomon was aware that her singular work would be her legacy, her magnum opus, says Czechowski. In a life that was foreshadowed by so much death, the paintings were her resistance to succumbing to the same tragic fate as members of her family.
Was the series also a form of catharsis? “Yes, I think the work saved her. It made her want to live longer,” he says. “She overcame this urge, this drive to death through suicide,” going on to marry another Jewish refugee, with the hope to have a family of her own.
In the Epilogue, there is a gradual sense of Salomon coming to terms with her family’s history of mental illness, her growing optimism and a determination to carry on living.
The concluding gouache shows Charlotte kneeling with a brush and paper in her hand, looking out to sea, with the words Life? or Theatre? painted on her back.
“Although at the end, it’s almost like the beginning, as it shows Charlotte embarking on the process, painting the first image in the cycle,” says Czechowski.
“You can tell how conceptually conscious she was.” She even poses a question to her potential viewers, “And from that,” she wrote, “came…Life or Theatre?”
‘Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?’ is at the Jewish Museum London from today until the first of March 2020