Summary of Charlotte Salomon
Perhaps one of the most underestimated artists in recent history, Charlotte Salomon secretly created a daunting visual opus while in exile during World War II. As a young German Jewish woman who witnessed the rise of the Nazis, Salomon used her artistic talent and vivid imagination to craft an expressive collection of imagery and text from an intensely personal story. Her work not only reveals an adept grasp of modernist aims and techniques, but also exposes the psychological workings of an artist desperately trying to maintain her individual identity at a time when her very existence was threatened by both internal and external forces.
- Salomon's vast, sequential work blithely blends real-world events with flights of fancy, resisting the categories of fiction and autobiography. She transforms lived experience from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood into the subjects of her painted narrative. Yet, she presents the drama from a distance, narrating the events from the perspective of a spectator, as if they were not her own personal memories but rather a compelling fictional saga. Salomon rejects the notion that art must come exclusively from an artist's experience or creative imagination, instead drawing from both sources without apology.
- A prominent theme throughout Salomon's work is the question of whether individuals are subject to certain fates beyond their control. Her characters appear destined to particular experiences - especially hardships - based on aspects of their identity they didn't choose, such as family history and religious background. At times, Salomon defied these inherited destinies foisted upon her, refusing to remain at schools condemning her Jewish heritage in 1930s Berlin or to fall victim to her family's pattern of suicides. However, Salomon and her characters also struggled to resist seemingly fateful, often tragic, outcomes. Salomon utilizes her characters to question fate and free will, using the framework and techniques of art to explore a serious, and at times painful, concept in her life.
- Salomon skillfully employed her knowledge of storytelling, musical composition, and visual art in one space to engage an imagined reader on many levels. The element of performance is a driving factor throughout Salomon's narrative. She willingly acknowledges her audience by anticipating questions from hypothetical readers and using techniques from musical theatre throughout her composition, including popular song lyrics as captions for her images and giving stage directions to describe the thoughts and behaviors of the characters. During her lifetime, Salomon never enjoyed a widespread audience for her work, yet she did not let her isolated artistic practice prevent her from engaging with the consumers of her fascinating tale and compelling imagery.
Biography of Charlotte Salomon
Charlotte Salomon was born in an upper middle-class family in Berlin in 1917. Her father, Albert Salomon, was a renowned physician, and her mother, Fränze Grunwald, known as Franziska, was a nurse for the German army when they met. An only child, Salomon spent the first years of her life in a defeated city broken by the war, living with a busy father devoted to his career and a depressed mother still traumatized by the suicide of her younger sister, Charlotte, who was eighteen years old when she drowned in 1913. Named after her late aunt, Salomon (called Lotte by most) and her mother often visited her aunt's tomb. Unfortunately, Salomon's mother's condition continued to decline over the years, until she finally committed suicide herself in 1926, when Charlotte was only eight years old. The truth was kept from the little girl, who believed that her mother died of influenza.
Important Art by Charlotte Salomon
One of the few remaining works from Salomon before she embarked on the creative journey that would become Life? or Theater?, this self-portrait dates to around 1940, when the artist was living in exile in southern France. Salomon represents herself as if on guard; the central focal point of the painting shows her locking eyes with the viewer in a sideways glance, simultaneously captivating the viewer and conveying a sense of reserved wariness on her part. Her expression is somber, and the stark contrast between the ochre and blue tones combine with the empty background to create a sparse scene. The cropping of the image at the artist's shoulder withholds any further information about her body and her environment from the viewer, reflecting a skillful use of the framing device to restrict the viewer's attention to the details of her countenance alone, forcing a more engaged contemplation of her emotions and their sources.
Around the time of this self-portrait, Salomon's grandmother committed suicide, and Salomon found out about the history of suicides in her family, including her own mother's. Additionally, Salomon and her grandfather were arrested and sent to the Gurs concentration camp. Despite the personal hardships and emotional toil Salomon encountered, her work continued to demonstrate her artistic talent and motivation. With only a few clear and simple lines and three colors, she was able to convey her inner turmoil underneath the restrained facade. Her self-portrait affirms the power of an artist to use limited means in order to convey great awareness and strength in the face of internal tension and external antagonism.
Part of the Prelude section in Life? or Theatre?, this scene was inspired by a vivid childhood memory for the artist. Depicting herself as the character Charlotte, Salomon presents Charlotte in bed with her mother, Franziska. Salomon's mother used to tell her daughter how beautiful Heaven was, promising that she would go there one day and become an angel, and send Salomon a letter telling her everything about it, as her daughter requested. In reality, Salomon waited a long time for this letter before understanding the truth of death and finally grieving the loss of her mother.
The memory becomes a dreamy scene that floats upon a swirling blue background. The space is clearly divided in three parts. In the first part, on the bottom left, Charlotte and her mother are shown talking to each other in a large bed with a deep red cover. The daughter is embraced tenderly by her mother. Next, Franziska appears in the center of the page floating upward, with the image of her body repeated in sequence along the ascending line toward the rendition of Heaven at the top of the page. Heaven is painted as a gathering of individuals spread horizontally across the top of the page, with God at the center greeting Franziska at an open doorway. In the final part in the lower right of the page, Franziska appears as an angel to deliver a letter through the window to her daughter. Below the window is an image of Charlotte leaning over her mother in another bed, perhaps her mother's deathbed, something that the artist herself would never have experienced in real life.
Salomon uses an overlay technique for this scene, layering transparent sheets with text on top of the painted page, which is typical for much of the work comprised within Life? or Theater? Throughout the beginning Prelude section, Salomon includes captions, often with musical instructions, lyrics, and other text spread across the page in unusual, curving lines that occasionally turn into images in their own right. For this scene and its immediate predecessor in the collection, Salomon has chosen a Christmas carol called "The Christmas tree is bright with candles" as the musical tune to which this moment is set. On a separate sheet of tracing paper, the artist writes the narration: "FRANZISKA. 'In Heaven everything is much more beautiful than here on earth - and when your Mommy has turned into a little angel she'll come down and bring her little lambkin, she'll bring a letter, telling her what it's like in Heaven, what it's up there in Heaven.'" This text on the transparency duplicates the movement of Franziska traveling upward from the bed to Heaven and back down to the window, blurring the distinctions between the imagery and the text when laid over the painted page. Salomon transforms a deeply intimate memory of her late mother and her childhood self into an imaginative interplay of imagery, text, and even music, returning to painful emotions while embracing the myriad ways that art allows for creative expression and personal healing.
Salomon begins Act Two of her visual saga with the rise of Nazism and its accession to power in Germany. On January 30, 1933, Salomon was sixteen when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party increased its power in the German government. A stark contrast from the family scenes of her childhood in the preceding section of Life? or Theater?, here Salomon bombards the viewer immediately with the overwhelming image of the Nazi brown-shirts parading in victory. She depicts the brown-shirts in the street as an unstoppable human wave, forming an anonymous and faceless mob that pushes forward toward the viewer. Interrupting the sea of soldiers is a single red flag, raised high above their heads and waving with vigor. The flag contains the easily recognizable swastika, the symbol adopted by the Nazis; yet, Salomon turns the swastika backwards, as if rotating in reverse. Hovering in the center of the page is also a patch of white paint with the date clearly written in black ink to mark the historic day.
Salomon captures both the excitement of the crowd and the fear that it provoked among the Jewish community. The musical tune accompanying this scene was a popular celebration of the swastika, which Salomon provides in a caption: "The swastika - a symbol bright of hope -The day for freedom and for bread now dawns." As Monica Bohm-Duchen points out, the text that Salomon attaches to her images "complicates and enriches" our readings of the scenes depicted. In this case, Salomon's inclusion of the song lyrics that announce the arrival of freedom and abundance with the Nazi symbol highlights how some Germans welcomed this moment in time as an opportunity to regain political and economic success. At the same time, this announcement threatens the safety of other Germans, namely the Jewish population. As members of this threatened group, Salomon and her characters were clearly excluded from this celebratory gathering, marking this date instead as the moment when their lives would never be the same. As such, Jewish individuals are completely absent from Salomon's image, leaving us with the sobering realization of what is to come.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Charlotte Salomon
- Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? A Selection of 450 GouachesOur PickBy Judith C. E. Belinfante, Evelyn Benesch / This is the most recent book published on Salomon
- Life? Or Theather?By Charlotte Salomon / This is the first complete edition of the art of Salomon published for the centenary of her birth
- To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi EraBy Mary Lowenthal Felstiner
- Reading Charlotte SalomonBy Michael P. Steinberg, Monica Bohm-Duchen