Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), a young German artist, painted her autobiography in the midst of World War II.
During the war a German Jewish artist named Charlotte Salomon recorded the story of her life. She was 24 years old when she began her autobiography, a refugee from Nazi Germany living on the French Riviera. As autobiography, there is nothing like Salomon's work: Life or Theater?: An Operetta. It unfolds in 1,350 paintings of astonishing vividness and force, with acts and scenes, captions and narrative texts, dialogues, commentaries, and musical accompaniments. The characters, based on her own family and friends, have fictional names, and the whole work takes the form of a painted play. After 1980 it achieved international renown through publications, film, drama, and popular exhibits in Amsterdam, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Miami, Tel Aviv, Berlin, and elsewhere.
On April 16, 1917, Salomon was born in Berlin to a family distinguished in the medical profession. But the family kept secret the fact that five of its members, including Salomon's mother, had taken their lives before her birth or in her childhood. Her father, Albert Salomon, professor at Berlin University's Medical School, married again in 1930. Through her stepmother, Paula Lindberg, a well-known mezzosoprano, Salomon first experienced the demands of love, the commitment to art, the crisis for Jews. Through Alfred Wolfsohn, an impoverished and charismatic voice coach employed by her stepmother, Salomon discovered passion, artistic conviction, and faith in self-disclosure. These influences from her stepmother and her mentor inspired her later work.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Paula Salomon-Lindberg began working with the Jewish Cultural Association, the sole sponsor permitted for Jewish performers. Salomon was admitted to the famous Berlin Fine Arts Academy in 1935, a rarity for a Jewish student. Developing her considerable talent, she found affinities with artistic movements the Nazis were working to suppress—Expressionism, poster art, caricature, and avant-garde theater. Life or Theater? registers the impact of Nazi power on one family: her grandparents decide to leave Germany; her stepmother is banned from the public stage; her father is fired from the university and thrown into a concentration camp; she herself is forced to leave the academy in 1938, then in 1939 to leave her family and Germany.
Salomon joined her grandparents in Villefranche, near Nice in southern France, where they were suffering the stresses of exile. There in 1940 at age 23 she witnessed her grandmother's suicide and suddenly learned the whole truth about her relatives. Uncovering the legacy of suicide from her family and culture brought her to "the question," as she put it: "whether to take her own life or undertake something crazy and unheard of"—an autobiography in art. Reflecting back on events of the 1930s in Berlin, the autobiography helped redeem her losses by creating what she called a "song of farewell to my native land." Her thousand-part self-portrait granted substance to a life that the German "master race" presumed expendable—merely young, female, Jewish.
Probably this work would not have come into being in 1941 and 1942 if Salomon had not faced the possibility of suicide in herself, had not known the danger of a Nazi-dominated Europe, and had not settled in one of its safer corners. On the French Riviera thousands of Jewish refugees found sanctuary, especially after the Italian occupation in late 1942, for the Italian authorities rejected Nazi demands to deport Jews to the deathcamp of Auschwitz in Poland. When Salomon finished the 1,300 paintings and hundreds of texts for Life or Theater? she gave them to a friend in Villefranche for safekeeping. Marrying another refugee, Alexander Nagler, she lived in relative security until the Germans occupied the Riviera in September 1943. Under the command of SS Captain Alois Brunner, the Gestapo conducted one of the most brutal roundups in Western Europe. Along with thousands of other Jews, she was arrested and sent by cattle transport to Poland.
Giving Life or Theater? away, she had said: "Keep this safe: it is my whole life." Her whole life ended in October 1943 at the age of 26 in Auschwitz.
After the war her father and stepmother, who had survived hidden in the Netherlands, found Life or Theater? in Villefranche and brought it back to Amsterdam. The original paintings now reside in Amsterdam's Jewish Historical Museum.
Two books have reproduced Charlotte Salomon's work: a selection of 80 paintings in Charlotte: A Diary of Pictures (1963) and 769 paintings in Charlotte: Life or Theater? An Autobiographical Play (1981). The former includes an account of Charlotte's life in France by Emil Straus, and the latter includes excellent introductions by Judith Belinfante, Gary Schwartz, and Judith Herzberg. A film, "Charlotte" (BBC, 1981) by Judith Herzberg and Frans Weisz, shows both the work and the life. Articles about Salomon and her work include those by Gary Schwartz in Artnews (October 1981) and by Mary and John Felstiner in Moment (May 1982). A study by Mary Felstiner of Charlotte Salomon's life, work, and times is in progress.
Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal, To paint her life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi era, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994.
Salomon, Charlotte, Charlotte, life or theater?: An autobiographical play, New York: Viking Press; Maarssen, The Netherlands: G. Schwartz, 1981. □