Charlotte Salomon - Biography and Legacy
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.
In 1930, Salomon's father married the well-known, charismatic lyric singer Paula Lindberg. This marriage not only gave the artist stability in her family life, but it also opened up for her the cultural world of Berlin as she became familiar with prominent musicians and artists that her stepmother associated with. Salomon truly loved her stepmother and attended all of her concerts. The two women formed a strong bond, even as Salomon's connections to her father and her school peers became increasingly distant. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Paula and her colleagues found themselves increasingly restricted in their artistic activities, as Jews were excluded from professional realms and public spaces in Berlin. However, as some Jews were able to emigrate during these troubling times, many Jews in Germany remained. Noting their responsibilities to serve their community, Salomon's father and stepmother decided to stay in Berlin, finding ways to assist other Jews by treating them, giving them work, or helping them get out. For her part, Salomon showed no signs of wanting to leave either her art studies or her family. But by the end of 1938, it was clear that leaving Germany was their only option.
Early Training and Work
Early on, Salomon attended the Fürsten Bismarck School for girls in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, a fashionable neighborhood where many Jewish families were living. Yet she left the school abruptly in 1933, when it enacted new Nazi educational regulations that promoted racial purity and demoralized and excluded Jewish students. According to Salomon's biographer, Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, "Mainly Lotte quit at age sixteen because any Nazi sign offended her. It was a principled and crucial move."
After an attempt to enroll Salomon in a fashion design school, she left, rejecting the criticism and rigidity her drawing instructor leveled at her. Salomon's taste and skills for drawing led her father to hire a private drawing teacher. Even though the artist grew rapidly bored by her private instructor's pedantic teaching style, she greatly improved her skills and gained artistic knowledge. Aiding her artistic journey was an invitation in 1934 to join her grandparents in Italy on a summer trip in honor of her seventeenth birthday. She went to Rome and Venice, discovering Ancient Roman art and architecture along with Renaissance art that would leave lasting impressions on her.
In 1936, with the help of the instructor Ludwig Bartning who recognized her talent, Salomon was accepted to the State Art Academy in Berlin, despite its restricting 1.5% quota for Jewish students. Her unobtrusive demeanor convinced the school officials that she would not "present a danger to the Aryan male students." Salomon was a discreet but brilliant student. She studied painting and discovered the modern art of Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Otto Dix, in books from the library that had not yet been banned and removed. She also read many art critics and philosophers, including Nietzsche. In 1937, the Nazis organized the famous "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, emphasizing with great fanfare their attack on modern artists. There's no record of Salomon attending the exhibit, but it is likely that she heard and read about it. In 1938, Salomon won the Academy's annual prize in painting, a prestigious and blind competition. However, since she was Jewish, Salomon was not allowed to receive the prize in public, and instead it was given to a non-Jewish friend of hers, Barbara. For Salomon, this public denial of her talent was a significant disappointment. She decided not to return to the school.
During her student years, she met a man who would impact her life greatly: Albert Wolfsohn. He was a famous singing teacher with very modern theories about voice, teaching, art, and creation, believing that "emotional healing" could extend one's vocal range. He managed to get hired by Paula for private lessons. Though he was more than twenty years her senior, Salomon fell in love with him and was inspired by his theories and philosophy. Wolfsohn quickly recognized Salomon's talent, and found her extremely quiet nature an enticing challenge. Their love affair was very intense for the artist but remained secret. Salomon was quite affected by his presence in her life, depicting his face nearly 3,000 times in her later work. Although she understood him to be self-confident, even a bit of a playboy among women, her devotion to him and his high regard for her is apparent in her visualizations of their romance.
The situation in Germany was becoming harder and harder for the Jewish community. Moreover, relations with her stepmother were not as good as before, and Salomon grew gloomier and darker after she left the Academy. On November 9, 1938, the fatal Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") erupted all over Germany. Jewish homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, and synagogues were attacked, ransacked, and demolished with great violence. Economic and political persecutions followed, and Salomon's father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for a short time. When he returned to his family, he was a traumatized and broken man - with nearly half his body weight lost - he urged his daughter to leave Germany.
Early in 1939, Salomon left Berlin for Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France, where her grandparents had fled in 1934. They were both living at the villa L'Ermitage, "a beautiful, large property of several houses, terraced gardens, and small waterfalls" owned by a generous American woman, Ottilie Moore, who welcomed many Jewish refugees from Germany. Salomon was warmly greeted by her relatives and Moore. However, after her grandmother's attempted suicide in September 1939, Salomon and her grandparents ultimately decided to leave, settling in Nice. Unfortunately, her grandmother's mental health was precarious. Out of fear and anger, Salomon's grandfather revealed the truth about her mother's suicide, exposing that Salomon was the sole heir to a long line of family members who committed suicide. The news was a shock for Salomon, who feared succumbing to the same tragic end herself. Salomon and the grandfather grew more vigilant towards her grandmother, but eventually her grandmother succeeded in her fatal goal, jumping out a window. She killed herself in the same manner as her own mother and uncle, as well as her two daughters.
In June 1940, the Vichy regime in France - the southern part of the country unoccupied by Nazi forces - signed an armistice with Germany and reversed many of its liberal policies. Salomon resided in this supposed "free zone," and was thus subject to the new laws that ordered French police to round up Jews and other "undesirables" and to recognize German nationals as enemies. As such, Salomon and her grandfather were sent to an internment camp in Gurs, located in the Pyrenees mountains, where philosopher Hanna Arendt was also detained. The trip was hard, the old man was sick, and the artist was distraught by the situation. At the camp, conditions were dismal - essentials like running water were scarce and diseases like typhoid were abundant - and fear was pervasive. Luckily, both Salomon and her grandfather were released a month after arriving due to his health condition and immediately returned to Nice.
Upon her return, the artist suffered an intense nervous breakdown, unable to cope with the information about her family, her increasing anger at her grandfather, and the lingering trauma of her recent internment. She visited Dr. George Moridis, a psychologist who had also helped and relieved Salomon's grandmother. Dr. Moridis suggested that she paint in order to save herself. Salomon then faced a dilemma between life and death, and finally decided "I will live for them all." Throughout 1942, Salomon moved alone into a hotel room in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where she dedicated her time and strength to a monumental project that would become her seminal artwork: Life? or Theater?
Salomon created an immense visual drama that teetered on the edge between autobiography and fiction. Following the form of a Singspiel, or operetta, and titled Life? or Theater?, her work consists of 769 gouaches chosen and numbered from a total of more than 1200 paintings she produced in just a few months. Salomon modeled her characters after real people in her life, hiding their true identities with playful nicknames, since many were prominent individuals within the Jewish community. Drawing upon her knowledge of drama, music, lyric and poetry, and, of course, drawing and painting, Salomon used her isolation in France to produce an enormous visual record of her personal life, family history, and impressive imagination, while simultaneously documenting the dramatic, tragic events unfolding in Europe around her.
By November 1942, France had become fully occupied by Germany and their Italian allies. The area where Salomon lived was controlled by the Italian forces, which had not been deporting Jews from the country. In this relative safety, after the completion of her work, the artist returned to Villefranche-sur-Mer. Moore had fled, taking several recused children with her in her car to Portugal, where she then boarded a ship bound for New York. Salomon went back to live at the L'Ermitage, where she met Alexander Nagler, a friend of Moore and fellow refugee who was entrusted with the care of the children Moore left behind. Salomon's grandfather was still in Nice, so she often went to visit him. The man was harder and harder to be with, distressed by his life and by the whole situation. These visits were hard for Salomon. In a lengthy letter she called her "Confession," made public in its entirety only in 2015, she wrote that she poisoned him during one of these visits in February 1943. Whether or not her account is completely true is impossible to know, but given her resentment towards him and rumors of his sexual abuse lend credibility to her confession. At any rate, the death of her grandfather was a relief to the artist.
At the L'Ermitage, Salomon and Nagler fell in love, though he was thirteen years her senior. She got pregnant, and they decided to marry in June 1943 in the Nice Town Hall. In September of that year, Italy surrendered and Germany took the region back, and, subsequently, Nazis started to intensify their search for Jews in the area. Only a few weeks after her marriage, Salomon gave her completed work of art, wrapped carefully in brown paper packages, to Dr. Moridis. Interrupting him at dinner, she handed him the packages, telling him, "Keep these safe. They are my whole life." The doctor did indeed keep the work safe through the war. One day, Salomon and Nagler were anonymously reported, and soldiers came to take them on September 23, 1943. They were first taken to the deportation camp of Drancy, outside Paris, then deported on a cattle car to Auschwitz. Salomon, who was five months pregnant, was gassed the day she arrived on October 10, 1943. She was only twenty-six years old. Her husband died of exhaustion three months later.
Salomon's parents survived her. They had lived in hiding in Amsterdam since 1940, after they escaped the Westerbork concentration camp. They only learned about Salomon's death after the war, traveling to Villefranche in 1947 to visit the last places where their daughter lived. At the L'Ermitage, they met Ottilie Moore who had returned from the United States and had received the precious packages of Salomon's artwork from Dr. Moridis. Moore showed the works to Albert and Paula. Deeply moved and amazed, they discovered a life and a person they didn't know about. The American, after much hesitation, gave the works to them.
In 1961, Albert and Paula organized the first show of Salomon's works. It was a huge success. Alfred, her first love - although Paula later circulated the story of their romance as only fictional - had spent the war in London and discovered the works at that time, not knowing his major role in Salomon's story and life. In 1971, Salomon's parents decided to bequeath all her works to the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, where they are still kept to this day.
The Legacy of Charlotte Salomon
Although numerous works have been published about Charlotte Salomon, the scholarship is still very recent, with many private details of her life and work only recently coming to light. Moreover, many of Salomon's works, besides Life? or Theater?, have been lost.
What she has left us, though, is a powerful testament of her inner life, experience in the world, and her artistic talents. She seemed to have embodied the Wagnerian concept of the total artwork, combining several means of expression. Her work has been a source of inspiration for other creative projects. Several plays based on her life and work have been created since the 1980s. In 1981, a fictional movie by Frans Weisz entitled Charlotte, was released, then Weisz also made a documentary about Salomon in 2011. In 2014, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, a French composer, dedicated an opera based on Life? or Theater?, with gouaches from the work included in the performance in the form of projections. In 2015, an opera-ballet was also created. Novels, like Charlotte by French writer David Foenkinos, were also written, showing the impact of Salomon's life and art on a wide range of people.
Salomon is neither a self-taught nor an outsider artist, for she received an artistic education and remains in the mainstream of art. Neither is she just a Holocaust artist. While her work testifies the experience of Nazi control and wartime, it also displays distinct artistic skills and a capacity for creative expression. The circumstances of its creation combined with the personality and life of its creator make the work extraordinary and unclassifiable. For the one hundredth anniversary of the artist's birth, the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam organized a large-scale retrospective dedicated to Salomon finally exhibiting the entirety of Life? or Theatre? for the first time. It was on view from October 2017 through March 2018,