Last month I attended an extraordinary art exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, on loan from the Netherlands Jewish Historical Museum: some 200 gouache illustrations by Charlotte Salomon from her Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?) magnum opus.
Salomon was a playwright without a stage. A graphic novelist before such a thing existed. A young woman struggling to find and claim her voice, to affirm herself and her existence. It is no surprise that her work -- with its themes of theater, creativity, love, feminism, identity, and history -- should resonate with me; these are things that I think about a lot.
Salomon was born into an upper-class Jewish family in Berlin in 1917, part of that wonderful cultured Mitteleuropean milieu of the early 20th century. Her father was a surgeon; her stepmother was an opera singer; and Charlotte attended art school. But, needless to say, by the 1930s, Berlin was a very bad place to be a Jew. Salomon's father lost his medical license, Charlotte had a school prize taken away from her on account of her religion, and shortly before she turned 21, her family sent her to the south of France for safety.
What makes Salomon's story really interesting, though, is its more personal details. Not only did she live in a dangerous and tumultuous era, but her family had its own tragedy: virtually all of the women on her mother's side of the family killed themselves. This information was concealed from young Charlotte until she was an adult (she had always been told that her mother died of influenza). When she learned the truth, she wondered if she too was destined to commit suicide. In a state of shock and crisis, she decided that she had only two options: either to kill herself, or to "undertake something eccentric and mad." She chose the latter option. She holed herself up in a hotel on the French Riviera and spent several months creating the hundreds of illustrations of Leben? oder Theater?
The narrative starts with Salomon's family history (the suicide of her mother's sister; her parents' meeting) and continues through her childhood and young womanhood, up until the moment she undertakes the Leben? oder Theater? project. Much of the narrative concerns Salomon's love for her stepmother's voice teacher, Alfred Wolfson, or "Amadeus Daberlohn" as he is called in the paintings (all of the Leben? oder Theater? characters have thinly disguised pseudonyms). Wolfson/Daberlohn was a World War I veteran whose philosophies about art, creativity, and finding one's voice had a great influence on Salomon. She paints his face obsessively, but also seems able to view him with a certain objectivity and humor -- you get the impression that he was a brilliant but also a pompous man. There's a memorable series of gouaches where Daberlohn is stretched out on a couch, pontificating on art and life:
"It is part of my nature as a man among men to remind them of suffering, which in our day we like to pretend does not exist. Yet I have never forgotten to emphasize that I love life and affirm it threefold. In order to love life completely, one must also embrace and comprehend its other side, death, including suffering. This is how my oft-repeated words must be understood those whom I love to undergo bitter experiences so that they will be forced to follow the path into their own depths."
These ideas would come back to Charlotte Salomon when she was at her lowest point and influence the creation of Leben? oder Theater? For, in the end, she followed the path into her own depths, learned about the death and suffering that haunted her family, and rather than being swallowed up by the darkness, made the choice to love and affirm life. The final panels of Leben? oder Theater? remind me of the closing scenes of a Chekhov play, where the young woman (Nina in The Seagull, Sonia in Uncle Vanya) clings to optimism and hope despite all the suffering that has befallen her.
Charlotte urges her grandmother: "Look at the flowers in the meadow. So much beauty, so much joy. Look at the mountains up there, so much sun, so much light."
As with Chekhov's plays, Salomon's paintings gain an extra bittersweetness because we know that their creator ultimately died far too young. After Salomon had completed Leben? oder Theater? and entrusted it to a friend, the Vichy France authorities discovered her. She was transported to Auschwitz, and killed at the age of 26.
Charlotte Salomon's story is a tragedy, but also, somehow, weirdly inspiring. They killed her. She didn't kill herself. Despite her family history of suicide, despite the grave dangers that she faced, she chose to self-create rather than self-destruct. She attempted to understand and redeem her family history, to break the cycle rather than perpetuate it.
The thought of Salomon, hiding out in the Riviera hotel, obsessively painting her gouaches, knowing that her life was in danger and time was perhaps running out (you can see the brushstrokes get wilder and more frantic as the series progresses) reminds me of a real-life version of Borges' story "The Secret Miracle." In that tale, a Czech-Jewish playwright is condemned to die before a Nazi firing squad, and his only regret is that he never finished the verse drama that he was writing. At the moment the bullets are fired, God grants the playwright's wish: he stops time and allows the playwright to take as long as he needs to compose the play in his head. So, too, by some miracle, Salomon was granted the time and the resources and the energy she needed to make Leben? oder Theater? (She already had the artistic skill.) It is also miraculous that the work survived, and that it holds interest from so many points of view -- artistic, narrative, historical, feminist. I confess I was less interested in the portions of the work that focus on Hitler's rise to power and the persecution of Jews, and more interested in the parts of it that reveal Salomon creating art, finding her voice, falling in love. A lot of art, up to the present day, deals with the Holocaust and the historical events surrounding it. It seems far rarer to view a museum exhibition about a young woman's coming of age.
Clearly, my blog post can't do justice to the full richness of Salomon's achievement. I'd tell you to see it for yourself, but the San Francisco exhibition closed two days after I saw it. However, the Dutch museum that owns it has scanned and posted every page online, and even included English translations of the text -- an amazing resource and well worth your time to browse.
Images from the website of the Joods Historisch Museum.