Bright art erased by a brutal ending

Charlotte by David Foenkinos (translated by Sam Taylor) Canongate £12.99


In Schubert’s Lied of Matthias Claudius’s poem, the maiden implores: “Pass me by, fierce man of bones! I’m still young. Don’t touch me.” Death reassures her: “Beautiful tender form! I’m not fierce. You’ll sleep softly in my arms.”

This exchange epitomises the symbiosis of life and death that dominated the existence of Charlotte Salomon, the Jewish painter, born in Berlin in 1917 to Albert Salomon, a surgeon, and Franzë Grünwald. While death, particularly her mother’s, haunted her family, Charlotte enshrined her life with extraordinary paintings.

Her father remarried in 1930. His wife, Paula Lindberg, a celebrated mezzo-soprano, and Charlotte developed an intensely loving relationship, especially after 1933, when Nazis began targeting Jews.

Around that time, Charlotte fell in love with Alfred Wolfsohn, Paula’s charismatic coach. Wolfsohn, perceiving Charlotte’s gifts, exhorted her to paint.

In 1936, by the grace of her father’s valorous First World War record, she evaded the Nazi decree that barred all but 1.5 per cent of Jews from higher education, and entered Berlin’s State Art Academy, where she discovered the avant-garde of Expressionism, vilified by the Nazis as “degenerate”. She left the Academy when, as a Jew, she could not collect a prize she had won.

In 1939, fleeing Nazi terror, she joined her grandparents in Villefranche-sur-Mer, then still under the relatively clement Italian occupation.

When, in 1940, her grandmother committed suicide, her grandfather revealed that seven other family members, including Charlotte’s mother, had also done so.

This disclosure, kept secret for 15 years, traumatised Charlotte. Overcoming the temptation to kill herself too, she decided, as David Foenkinos quotes her, “to go deeper into solitude and bring the dead back to life”.

Thereafter, she started painting Life? Or Theatre? — a work of 769 notebook-size gouaches in striking colours set in the period 1913-1940. Applying dramatic devices like tracing-paper overlays, captions and complementary music, she created an autobiographical masterpiece unique in the history of art.

In 1942, she entrusted this work to her doctor, Georges Moridis, telling him: “Keep this safe. It’s my whole life.”

In September 1943, Italy surrendered, ceding the Côte d’Azur to Germany, and the round-up of Jews began.

Charlotte, aged 26 and five-months pregnant, and another refugee, Alexander Nagler, whom she had recently married, were arrested on September 21. Temporarily interned at Drancy, they were deported to Auschwitz and arrived there on October 10. Since pregnant women were invariably killed on arrival, Charlotte perished in the gas chambers. Nagler died of exhaustion three months later.

In Charlotte’s last gouache she sits by the sea, resembling Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, with the caption “Life? Or Theatre?” imprinted on her back like the indictments borne by the victims in Kafka’s story In the Penal Colony. The caption might also conjure the Roman indictment, INRI, on another Jewish victim: Iesus Nazareus Rex Iudaeorum.

Foenkinos’s paean of Charlotte Salomon’s life, marking her 100th birthday, is a tour de force. Every important detail and much more of this supreme artist’s life — “a hierarchy of horror” — is recorded lovingly, passionately, obsessively and lyrically.

The verse-like narrative, wherein Foenkinos moves from one individual line to the next “in order to breathe” produces a befittingly vibrant creativity.


Moris Farhi’s books include the poetry collection, ‘Songs From Two Continents’

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