Charlotte Salomon Life or Theatre? At The Jewish Museum, Camden Town
PUBLISHED: 18:00 14 November 2019 | UPDATED: 10:58 19 November 2019
The Camden Town museum shows 200 of the German Jewish artist’s extraordinary gouaches painted while in hiding from the Nazis as she contemplated suicide
Charlotte Salomon; trailblazing artist, Holocaust victim..murderer?
Her extraordinary magnum opus, Life? Or Theatre? was painted in an intense burst of creativity while in hiding from the Nazis.
She started it in the traumatic aftermath of her grandmother's suicide - after learning that seven other female family members, including her mother, had taken their own lives. The series of more than 800 gouaches was an alternative to death. Should she emulate her relatives or "undertake something wildly eccentric?" she asked herself.
Two hundred of these dark, biographical works go on display at Camden Town's Jewish Museum next month, depicting family life in Berlin - where despite anti-Semitic laws she managed to study painting for two years - and exile in France.
Dominik Czechowski the museum's head of exhibitions says: "She created this enormous body of work, 1,000 gouaches which she edited down to 869 in a conscious way, as a conceptual endeavour to form a cohesive account of a life. It was an intense period when she was in hiding in a rented room in Vichy France and embarked on a project to counter her own contemplation of suicide and depression. Her artistic expression became a form of resistance to despair.
"We are showing a selection including 50 which haven't been seen in the UK. The work is based on Charlotte's biography, but she combines it with fictional elements, gives alter egos to characters and never appears as herself but as Charlotte Kann."
In one panel, Salomon shows herself as a child cradled by the mother she thought had died of influenza when she was nine. In another, her relationship with her stepmother's singing teacher Alfred Wolfson who encouraged her painting, is shown as sexual even though it probably wasn't. This tendency to portray fantasies is perhaps pertinent to a painted letter, censored by her family, which resurfaced in 2012.
It confesses to the Feburary 1943 poisoning of her grandfather with a drug-laden omelette. She claims she drew him as he lapsed into death. There are also hints he was sexually abusive.
"Maybe her grandfather died of natural causes, maybe she helped him, maybe there was a history of familial abuse that drove the suicides, we can only speculate," says Czechowski.
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"How much is fiction and imagination is still shrouded in mystery, which makes her work so fascinating."
Salomon has in the past been seen as a Holocaust artist because of the circumstances under which she painted. After Kristallnacht in 1938, she left her surgeon father and opera singer stepmother in Berlin to live with her grandparents outside Nice.
After her grandmother's suicide in 1939, Salomon and her grandfather were briefly interned in a camp in the Pyrennees, but then released. It was between 1940 and 1941 that, depressed after her grandfather revealed the true reason for her mother's death, she painted Leben? Oder Teater?
"She asked herself why? and whether it could be inherited. It was an investigation into this dark family history, the mystery of those suicides and some familial abuse alluded to."
Ultimately Charlotte chose life. She married fellow refugee Alexander Nagler, but was transported to Auschwitz on October 10, 1943 five months pregnant. It is thought she was gassed on arrival.
A major exhibition in Amsterdam, essays by art historian Griselda Pollock and an animation film by Bibo Bergeron are cementing her reputation as a pioneering artist who used her life as a springboard for creativity. Life or Theatre was imagined as a "visual operetta" with notes on music and stage directions. Showing influences of German Expressionism it is also a "prototype graphic novel" of huge originality and experimentation.
"Events were happening around her, as a Jewish person she was oppressed, in exile, but it's so limited to label her a Holocaust artist," says Czechowski.
"We don't want to present her as a victim but as a modern artist. What survives is this bravura work, a testimony to her courge and urge to create. It is so complex and multi-layered, it's a play with music, a libretto, an operetta that weaves the domestic with political and social commentary. It is full of vibrancy and explores enormous, powerful themes.
"In the end she opted for hope, she chose life, to be the first female member of her family to feel happy and fulfilled. That's really heartbreaking."
Czechowski believes working alone enabled her to find a unique style and voice that might have been stifled by the male art world.
"She had few female peers and it was typically thought female to focus on the personal. Yet that is exactly their power, the urge to look inside yourself, to draw from your own experience and transform that into art is a very modern way of creating. She was ahead of her time and and her legacy can only grow as people discover her extraordinary story."
Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre, is at the Jewish Museum, Camden Town until March 1 2020. jewishmuseum.org.uk