- Reading Charlotte Salomon
One of the most powerful exhibits I have ever seen at the Jewish Museum in New York was a collection of hundreds of tiny paintings, many with words inscribed below them and presented in the form of an illustrated operetta created by a young German-Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon. The whole piece was hard to take in as one moved from each small image to the next, but judging from the present yet suppressed emotions of the crowd as we tried to absorb it, the young woman's cross-generic piece was incredibly moving; with drawn, concentrated faces and molasses slow steps, we tried to come to terms with the terrible weight of her miserable life. The play describes the Nazi takeover and ever-increasing restrictions and violence against Jews, the terrifying legacy of the suicide of her aunt, mother, grandmother, and other members of her family, and other devastations. Salomon's life and work thus intersect with personal, family traumas including incest and suicide, and national, historical traumas, including exile and genocide. Her illustrated theatre piece, Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music, offers a rich text for those interested in the Holocaust, memory, trauma, and gender.
Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917 and was raised in the rich milieu of middle-class, culturally sophisticated, assimilated German Jewry. The daughter of a prominent surgeon, she studied at the Berlin Academy of Arts, and then early in 1939, after the Nazi regime made life impossible for Jews but before the outbreak of World War II, she joined her grandparents in exile in Villefranche-sur-mer, near Nice in the South of France. After being briefly interned at the French-run camp in the Pyrenees, Gurs, in 1940, Salomon began Life? or Theatre?, painting from memory the thinly veiled members of her troubled family and friends who became characters in the operetta. In June 1943 Salomon married Alexander Nagler, an Austrian-Jewish refugee. Four months later, the couple were deported to Drancy (outside Paris) and from there to Auschwitz, where, at the age of twenty-six, and four months pregnant, Salomon was murdered on arrival (her husband survived until 1944). Anticipating her deportation, Salomon had left her work with a doctor in Villefranche who safely guarded it. Life? or Theatre? was first exhibited in 1961 in the Fodor Museum, Amsterdam; in addition to the Jewish Museum show in New York mentioned above (which was on view from December 10, 2000–March 25, 2001) her paintings have been exhibited at, among other venues, the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1998, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2000. [End Page 112]
In the recently published collection Reading Charlotte Salomon, Michael P. Steinberg and Monica Bohm-Duchen have brought together a series of brilliant and diverse essays by prominent and emerging scholars in a variety of fields. In his opening contribution, Steinberg effectively situates Salomon's work not only within her own personal, traumatic life, but also within German Jewish life between the two (extant) World Wars. Steinberg draws upon his deep musical knowledge to produce fascinating readings of resonances and implicit references between Salomon's work and that of Gustav Mahler. He also compares Salomon's paintings to those of Caspar David Friedrich and Mark Rothko; via Robert Rosenblum's much-circulated idea of the abstract sublime, Steinberg suggests that Rothko's canvases offer an "unconscious homage, I think, to the geometry and colors of Charlotte Salomon's work" (18). But the power of Steinberg's essay is to situate Salomon's life and art within the flourishing life of bourgeois Jewry before the war. Steinberg rightly insists that "Auschwitz is not the telos of her [i.e. Salomon's] life and it cannot be understood to be the telos of modern Jewish or modern German Jewish life" (20). In a similar vein, Bohm-Duchen, who offers a most useful reading of Salomon's theatre, begins by noting that "it is clearly a distortion...