1917 – 1943 / German painter
While fleeing from the Nazis and living in exile in the Cote d’Azur, a young artist was to realize one of the most unusual works in the history of art. Over the course of 18 months, Charlotte Salomon painted over 1,300 gouaches documenting her short but dramatic life. She compiled the vast work, which encompasses biographical and fictional elements, into a series entitled “Leben? Oder Theater?” (Life? Or Theatre?). It is a work of poignant beauty, one that crosses genres and is a testament to the artist’s unshakeable will to live. A work that embraces different forms and styles, disarranging and recompiling them, and placing them in new contexts.
Born in 1917, Charlotte Salomon was the daughter of upper-middle class Jewish parents who lived in Berlin. Her mother, who suffered manic depression, committed suicide when Charlotte was 8 or 9 years old. She was a solitary child who found her refuge in painting. She was later accepted into what is now the University of the Arts – at a time when very few Jewish students were granted admission. During the two years she spent at the academy, she realized that the anti-modernist ideology propagated by its teachers would never suit her own painting style. The young artist subsequently left the academy and taught herself to paint with the help of art books. By 1938, in the wake of the Kristallnacht, the already difficult situation became much more serious for the Salomon family. Charlotte’s father was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but her stepmother was able to secure his release by organizing some fake documentation. Their flight into exile was inevitable, and while Charlotte was sent to her grandparents in southern France, her parents went to Amsterdam, where Charlotte was to join them later. However, this plan was thwarted when the war broke out.
It was only after her grandmother committed suicide in 1940 – like Charlotte’s mother she jumped to her death out of a window – that the young woman learned the shocking truth about her mother’s death and other family secrets. She fell into a deep crisis, and to save her sanity, she decided to depict her life in drawings. She threw herself obsessively into the work and set about creating a biographical portrait that drew on a diverse range of artistic techniques. The final result was a breathtaking, deeply personal work which documented a life overshadowed by family tragedy and the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era. It is a work that possesses a formal uniqueness due to its combination of cinematic, comic-like and conventional means of expression. Charlotte skilfully depicts stages in the life of the Salomon family using artistic film techniques such as flashbacks, montages, shifts of perspective, close-ups and wide shots. She even added instructions as to what music should accompany her work, creating daring arrangements of her images. She also worked textual elements into her gouaches that are reminiscent of modern-day graphic novels. Though she lacked any support or advice during the production of this epic work, the young artist confidently made use of the modernist vocabulary, and created a kind of memorial tableau full of intensity and longing that depicted her colourful, eventful life.
In 1943 Charlotte met the Austrian exile Alexander Nagler, and after she became pregnant the couple decided to get married. A short while later the Nazis occupied the Mediterranean coast of France and the young couple were deported to Auschwitz. Charlotte, who was five months pregnant by then, was murdered upon arrival at the concentration camp on 10 October 1943.
Some time before she was deported, Charlotte had wrapped her biographical work “Leben? Oder Theater?” in packing paper and in September 1943 given it to a trusted friend for safekeeping with the words, “ Take care of it. It is my whole life”
Charlotte’s artistic legacy was given its first public exhibition in Amsterdam in 1961. And though it was subsequently exhibited in Germany and Israel, it was primarily in the context of the Holocaust rather than being presented as a work of art in galleries. There has been a steady stream of films, books, operas and theatre works dealing with the fateful life of the young Jewish artist, but Charlotte Salomon has yet to be accorded her rightful status in the history of art as a modern artist of equal standing to her contemporaries.