The Obsessive Art and Great Confession of Charlotte Salomon

In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the
German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s
grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the
mid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to
use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not
a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely
personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who,
Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And
resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a
thirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light.
“I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write.
Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how
she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her,
from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a
distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his
bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his
voluminous beard—survives.

A page from Salomon’s 1943 “confession” to her lover Alfred Wolfsohn, most of which has only recently come to light.Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

Salomon’s letter is addressed, repeatedly, to her “beloved” Alfred
Wolfsohn, for whom she created her work. He never received the missive.
Nineteen pages of Salomon’s “confession,” as she called it, were
concealed by her family for more than sixty years, the murder excised.
Fragments of the missing letter were first made public in the voice-over
of a 2011 Dutch documentary by the filmmaker Frans Weisz. Salomon’s
stepmother had shown him the pages, written in capital letters painted
in watercolor, in 1975, and allowed him to copy the text, but, as
requested, he had kept them secret for decades. In 2015, the Parisian
publisher Le Tripode released the letter in its entirety for the first
time, in a new edition of Salomon’s complete work, “Leben? oder Theater?
Ein Singespiel” (“Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play”). The English translation of this definitive edition will be published this fall, by Overlook Press.

Salomon drew this portrait of her grandfather, in February, 1943, as he died in front of her.Courtesy the Yad Vashem Art Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

Though the discovery of the murder stunned Salomon’s scholars—none
questioned the veracity of her account—the revelation of her crime
garnered little attention, even in France, where Salomon has enjoyed a
kind of cult status since the publication, in 2014, of the best-selling
novel by David Foenkinos, “Charlotte,” inspired by her life. (Since the first publication of her work, in 1963, Salomon frequently has been referred to as only “Charlotte”—a habit that began as a misguided attempt to market her as a sister diarist to Anne Frank,
which has served both to render her all but anonymous and to defang her
ferocious work.) Separating Salomon’s work from the ill-defined,
unutterably sad category of “Holocaust Art” has proved an impossible task,
and this teutonic Scheherazade has meandered through the decades, curiously under the radar
to all but the cognoscenti. The mischaracterization of her work is easy
to trace: “Life? or Theatre?” is the largest single work of art created
by a Jew during the Holocaust and, more often than not, her work is
exhibited in Jewish and Holocaust museums. With only a few exceptions,
Salomon’s archive—close to seventeen hundred works—is held at the Jewish
Historical Museum, in Amsterdam, where her parents donated it, in 1971.

And yet, apart from a handful of depictions of the Third Reich,
Salomon’s work is not about the Holocaust at all but, rather, about
herself, her family, love, creativity, death, Nietzsche, Goethe, Richard
Tauber, Michelangelo, and Beethoven. It chronicles the genesis of an
artist from a family of dark secrets—mental illness, nervous breakdowns,
molestation, suicides, drug overdoses, and Freudian love triangles: a
harbinger to our age of grand confessionals.

“Life? or Theatre?” comprises seven hundred and sixty-nine gouaches that Salomon chose and
numbered from a total of twelve hundred and ninety-nine; three hundred and forty transparent overlays of text; a
narrative of thirty-two thousand words; and multiple classical-music cues. It is a
work of mesmerizing power and astonishing ambition. Placed side by side,
the ten-by-thirteen-inch paintings would reach the length of three New
York City blocks. Salomon called the work “something crazy special”; its
uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of
the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres
into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography,
memoir, operetta, play, and, now, murder mystery.

The art historian Griselda Pollock, who has studied Salomon’s work for
twenty-three years, calls “Life? or Theatre?” simply “an event in the
history of art.” This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Salomon’s
birth, and three large books—from Overlook Press, Taschen (in four
languages), and Yale (a study by Pollock)—are scheduled for publication,
alongside an exhibition of her work, in Amsterdam, that will show the
entire cycle, over eight hundred works, for the first time ever. The
film director Bibo Bergeron has announced that he will be making a
bio-pic of the artist, animating her images in 3-D. Salomon appears
primed for reassessment.

A panel in “Life? or Theatre?” in which a sign for a Nazi newspaper reads, “German men and women! Take your revenge!!!!!!!!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you’ll have by far a better life.”Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

I first came across Salomon’s work on the afternoon of July 6, 2015. I
know this because my diary from that day features none of the usual
small details, just her name in capital letters. I was in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a perfectly preserved medieval village adjacent to
Nice, on the Côte d’Azur. Having crossed the heavy stone drawbridge into the immense sixteenth-century Citadelle Saint-Elme, whose walls plunge precipitously into the bay of Villefranche, I found a small exhibit of
Salomon’s paintings in the tiny chapel of the fortress. Salomon came to
the town on December 10, 1938, and made “Life? or Theatre?” here; this
was the first exhibition of her works in the place of their creation.

The fifty gouaches at the Citadelle presented an exuberant mixture of
vibrant pictures, ironic texts, and witty dialogue—an early example of
the graphic novel, as we now define the genre. One
bright-blue-and-yellow painting presents the young Charlotte kneeling on
her bed, dreaming of love, with eleven bouncing red hearts cascading
from her bowed head. In another gouache, a charming family portrait,
something is already not quite right. Salomon’s mother is dressed
elegantly, in an orange suit with a voluminous fur collar, while her
father is dapper, wearing his overcoat, scarf, and top hat. But their
daughter, in her pale-pink dress and flat-top hat, stands strangely
unanchored at their side, all but falling out of the frame.

Many of Salomon’s early images contain multiple scenes on a page, like a
comic book or a movie storyboard—Salomon was well versed in the Weimar
Republic’s cinema—depicting sequential actions with an off-kilter wit.
In the later paintings, one can see the shift in Salomon’s work from the
petite, jaunty, and joyful, as the images become sparser, darker,
bolder, the style more modern and urgent; the early detail gives way to
depth as innocence turns to truth.

In 1994, Mary Felstiner published a well-researched biography of Salomon, which suggests that what we know of the artist’s real life is represented accurately in “Life? or Theatre?” Salomon’s work, however,
is not quite nonfiction, and narrates her own life at a remove: the
heroine appears throughout in the third person, as “Charlotte Kann.”
Nowhere in the work does Salomon’s full name appear, though an often
camouflaged “CS” dots most of the paintings. As a Jew making revelatory
art work during the years of the Third Reich, Salomon gives the main
characters comic pseudonyms to protect their identities: Professor
Klingklang, Dr. Singsang.

Salomon was born on April 16, 1917, in Berlin, the only child of an
haute-bourgeois German Jewish family. Her mother, Franziska, met her
father, Albert, during the First World War, when she was a nurse at the
front. Despite Albert’s reservations, Charlotte was named after her
mother’s only sibling, who, in 1913, had left the family home in Berlin
one November night, walked twenty-one miles, and drowned herself in a
lake. That same year, Albert, a surgeon and professor at the University
of Berlin, had made the first identification of breast cancer from
X-rays, and he is cited as a founding father of mammography.

One of Salomon’s early gouaches illustrates a detailed map of her
family’s eleven-room apartment, including the quarters of the servant,
in the chic suburb of Charlottenburg. Salomon’s childhood panorama
features wet nurses, hula hoops, trampolines, toy trains, Christmas
trees, and holidays in Milan, Venice, and the Bavarian Alps. She loved
tobogganing and outdoor sports, and, Salomon tells us, “cut her finest
figure as an ice skater.”

But, when Charlotte was eight, her mother became depressed and began
“speaking only of death.” In one transparency overlay in “Life? or
Theatre?,” she explains to her daughter that, “in heaven, everything is
much more beautiful than here on earth.” In February, 1926, while
convalescing at her parents’ house from an opium overdose, Franziska
jumped out of the window. Salomon was told that her mother had died of
influenza. Franziska’s mother had now lost both of her daughters to
suicide. One image in “Life? or Theatre?” has Salomon’s grandmother
curled into a black, snail-like ball, enduring “the suffering of the
world.” Charlotte’s mother has told her that she will send word from the
“celestial spheres” when she ascends, and, in another painting, the
child is shown rising “ten times a night” to see if an “angelic trace”
has arrived at the window. “She is very disappointed,” the text reads.

Soon after the account of Franziska’s death, two unusually ominous
gouaches appear in “Life? or Theatre?” In the first, little Charlotte is
at her grandparents’ house. “She is filled with panic and runs-runs-runs
. . .” In the image, a tiny girl heads straight between the towering
legs of a Nosferatu-like monster with gigantic clawed hands. In the next
panel, the child has retreated to the bathroom. She sits hunched on the
edge of the bathtub in her blue frock, staring into the toilet, hair
jagged in alarm. “So,” the girl says, “that’s what they call life.” A
later text echoes, “A little love, a few laws, a little girl, a big bed.
That’s life and those its joys.”

One of Salomon’s early gouaches illustrates, in detail, her family’s eleven-room apartment, including the quarters of their servant, in the chic suburb of Charlottenburg.Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation
In this painting, the young Charlotte is shown waiting for the angel of her mother to arrive at the window.Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

In a transparency overlay, the mother explains to her daughter that, “in heaven, everything is much more beautiful than here on earth.”Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation
The young Charlotte kneeling on her bed, dreaming of love.Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

From a panel in “Life? or Theatre?” in which Paulinka (based on the artist’s stepmother) appears to Daberlohn (based on Wolfsohn) in a vision.Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation
From a panel in “Life? or Theatre?” in which Daberlohn says to Charlotte, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”Courtesy the Jewish Historical Museum © Charlotte Salomon Foundation

In 1930, Salomon’s father married the well-known contralto Paula
Lindberg (née Levi)—called Paulinka Bimbam in “Life? or Theatre?”—and
the members of the Salomon household mingled with luminaries like Albert
Einstein, the architect Erich Mendelsohn, the philosopher and physician
Albert Schweitzer, and the scholar Leo Baeck. In January, 1933, Adolf
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and the closing in on Jews
began. Albert lost his job at the university, and Paula’s singing
engagements around the capitals of Europe were cancelled. In September,
Charlotte, who was sixteen, refused to return to school; Salomon’s
illustration of this declaration is blanketed with a dizzying array of
swastikas, swirling in reverse.

Despite her Jewish heritage, Salomon was admitted, two years later, to
the prestigious Academy of Arts, in Berlin; according to the admissions
committee’s notes, she was deemed to be so “modest and reserved” that
she would not “present a danger to the Aryan male students.” When
Felstiner interviewed some of Salomon’s classmates, they recalled her as
“having no definite characteristics” and being “uncommonly
inarticulate,” like “a nonperson.” During her second year at the
Academy, Salomon won the first prize in a blind art competition, but the
award was given to her non-Jewish friend Barbara, whom Salomon later
painted as a languid Matisse Madonna, elongated like a Modigliani.
Again, Salomon refused to return to school.

At this time, Paula Lindberg-Salomon hired Alfred Wolfsohn as her voice
coach, and in the course of the next year he became Salomon’s mentor and
first lover (though he was, according to Salomon’s telling, in love with
her stepmother, his “Madonna”). Wolfsohn—named Amadeus Daberlohn
(“Penniless Mozart”) in “Life? or Theatre?”—was twenty-one years
Salomon’s senior and something of a ladies’ man, and his entrance into
her art work is marked with the “Toreador’s Song” from “Carmen.” So
began Salomon’s real education.

The defining event of Wolfsohn’s life had been his literal burial, at
the age of twenty-one, between the dead and dying in the trenches of the
First World War. This trauma left him unable to sing; after the war, he
became a voice teacher with radical theories that emotional healing
could produce expanded octave range. Salomon adored him, but, in “Life?
or Theatre?,” Charlotte is not oblivious to his pomposity. “You are now
in the room of a poor poet, who is both ascetic and prophetic,” Daberlohn announces in one text.

In Wolfsohn’s unpublished manuscript from 1946, “The Bridge,” he wrote
that Salomon’s unremitting silence “forced me to play the clown,” and
that their endless, one-sided conversations became a kind of seduction:
“She was extraordinarily taciturn, and unable to break through and
emerge from the barrier that she had built round herself.” In one of
Salomon’s gouaches, Charlotte shows Daberlohn her haunting drawing of
“Death and the Maiden,” based on the Schubert song, set to the poem by
Matthias Claudius. In this image, the young maiden gazes longingly into
Death’s eyes, his cloaked figure tenderly embracing her, his large
skeletal hand encircling her small head. “That’s the two of us,”
Daberlohn says.

From 1937 through 1938, Salomon and Wolfsohn met with ever-escalating
risk in cafés and on public benches marked “Nur für Arier” (“For
Aryans Only”). In several gouaches, Salomon places Fräulein Kann on
Daberlohn’s lap or kneeling before him, declaring, “I love you,” their
two bodies melded. Wolfsohn’s doppelgänger dominates “Life? or
Theatre?,” and his dissertations on Christ, Socrates, Rembrandt,
Tolstoy, Schiller, psychoanalysis, Helen of Troy, Orpheus, “the eternal
feminine,” and “Amor and Eros” comprise close to one-third of Salomon’s
entire text. Salomon painted his face 2,997 times.

Immediately following Kristallnacht, in November, 1938, Albert Salomon
was arrested, incarcerated, and tortured in the concentration camp of
Sachsenhausen, twenty-one miles north of Berlin. He lost half his body
weight before his wife was able to acquire forged papers that secured
his release. The couple quickly ushered their daughter out of the
country. The farewell earns twenty-seven paintings in “Life? or
Theatre?”—six of them showing a passionate final meeting between
Charlotte and Daberlohn, in his room. “May you never forget that I
believe in you,” he says.

Several years earlier, Salomon’s maternal grandparents had taken up the
offer of Ottilie Moore, a rich American woman of German parentage, to
stay at her villa on the Côte d’Azur. Moore, whose father, Adolf Gobel,
made his fortune as the “Sausage King” of Brooklyn, had settled in
Villefranche, in 1929, and spent the war years helping pregnant Jewish
women hide, taking numerous babies and children under her protection.
L’Ermitage was a beautiful, large property of several houses, terraced
gardens, and small waterfalls, overlooking the bay of Villefranche.
Salomon spent five years in this Mediterranean paradise of water,
sunshine, olive trees, steep and rugged coastline, and Tiepolo-pink

But L’Ermitage was not the sanctuary it appeared. In September, 1939,
Salomon’s grandmother attempted to hang herself in the bathroom. In
the aftermath of this trauma, Salomon’s grandfather revealed to his only
grandchild that she was the sole remaining heir to a family that, over
three generations, had seen two men and six women, including her own
mother, kill themselves. According to Wolfsohn, after learning of her
family legacy, Salomon had written letters where she “passionately
reproached her father for begetting her, for forcing on her such a
hereditary stigma.”

Shortly after, Salomon moved with her grandparents to a small apartment
in Nice. There, her grandmother, at the age of seventy-two, succeeded in
her quest by jumping out the third-story window, as if in tandem with
Salomon’s mother fourteen years earlier. “My life began . . . when I
found out that I myself am the only one surviving,” Salomon wrote in her
murder confession. “I felt as though the whole world opened up before me
in all its depths and horror.”

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