Pictures are all the work of Charlotte Salomon from Taschen’s Life? or Theatre?
DIANE DE BEER
Charlotte by David Foenkinos (Canongate) and Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich (Taschen):
Charlotte Salomon is born into a family stricken by suicide and a country at war – but there is something very exceptional about her. She has a gift, a talent for painting. And she has a great love, for a brilliant, eccentric musician.
But just as she is coming into her own as an artist, death is coming to control her country. The Nazis have risen to power and, as a Jew in Berlin, her life is narrowing – she is kept from her art, torn from her love and her family and chased from her country. But still she is not safe, not from the madness that has haunted her family, or from the one gripping Europe…
Charlotte is a heart-breaking true story – inspiring, unflinching, awful, hopeful – of a life filled with curiosity, animated by genius and cut short by hatred. A beautifully, lucidly told memorial, it has become an international success.
These are the words on the jacket of David Foenkinos’s Charlotte (Canongate).
I was given this book as a gift by an astute friend together with Taschen’s Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich which includes essays by Judith C.E. Belinfante and Evelyn Benesch as well as a selection of 450 gouaches.
Because I didn’t know the artist at all, I didn’t immediately connect the two books but soon discovered, the first, written almost in poetic prose – like an epic poem – was inspired by Charlotte’s lightly fictionalised memoir consisting of hundreds of paintings, sketches, text and musical annotations created during the years she was in hiding.
Foekinos is an award-winning French novelist and screenwriter who won the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and Charlotte has sold more than half a million copies in France and was translated into 19 languages.
It is excellently translated from French into English by American Sam Taylor. So once you have read the intriguing story by the novelist who simultaneously with Charlotte’s life story shares his own tale of discovering the artist, you can follow that with the Taschen art collection which again delves into Charlotte’s life but this time with the paintings and illustrations in hand.
It is an extraordinary insight into an artist who before these two books, might not have been familiar to you.
Foenkinos, for example, only discovered her work in 2004 in a museum in Germany and this propelled him to tell her story. It’s difficult to imagine that the life you encounter was such a short one and in a time as a Jewess in Germany (1917 – 1943), there wasn’t much chance of her visibility as artist flourishing.
Executing her gouache series Life? Or Theatre? she pleaded with a friend to “take good care of it, it is my entire life.” Perhaps she had a premonition because a few months later, the 26-year-old was deported to Auschwitz where she was killed shortly after her arrival.
The work tells her life story with a ground-breaking narrative that spans her entire short life: her complicated family life coloured by the high incidence of female suicides; her youth in Berlin marked by die rise of the Nazis and the oppression that followed; her close relationship with singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn; her exile in France where her masterwork was accomplished; as well as abuse suffered on different levels from different people.
All these are reflected in her personal story that she embellishes with pseudonyms and fantasies to hide the actual personae, but reading both books, the story is clear. It’s an astonishing insight into her inner world, into that time, the way people lived and were terrorised, the decisions you make under duress and without foresight of course. Now we know everything in full colour, but at the time, the citizens of Germany, especially those being persecuted, had no idea of the horrors lying in wait.
But what also makes this such an intriguing read is the passions of the artist when it comes to the people and her painting and how she told her personal story in a way that kept her sane and allowed her artistic expression to flower.
Illustrated diaries, art books, aren’t uncommon anymore but at that time, given her youth and her life, what she produced is astonishing and adds greatly to her story and her art – both in equal measure and with astounding strength.
In 1947, her parents discover her life project in the South of France. They decide to donate it to the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) in Amsterdam in 1971. Throughout the years, parts of the work have been displayed in museums around the world, but many art lovers are still unaware of this artist and her body of unique and unusual art.
According to Wikipedia, in 1981 the Museum presented 250 scenes in narrative sequence, and critics began to comment on the work. An exhibition was presented at the London Royal Academy in 1998 and was an unexpected sensation, helped by the publication of a complete catalogue. Part of her anonymity, they believe, is the result of Salomon’s work not appearing on the international art market, as the whole archive belongs to the protective Charlotte Salomon Foundation based at the Joods Historisch Museum. The art historian Griselda Pollock dedicated a chapter to Charlotte Salomon in her Virtual Feminist Museum, analysing her work in terms of contemporary art, Jewish history and cultural theory.
And most recently Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? was exhibited at the Joods Historisch Museum from October 2017 to March 2018.
With these two latest books, there’s a chance of a wider audience and perhaps a deeper understanding of her work. But more than anything, it is the excitement of discovering an artist with such a strong voice, a woman to boot, who tells her story in such an individual and inspiring fashion.
It’s not an uplifting story, but it is inspiring that she could find a way to express herself so magnificently and with such a unique voice in such dark times. And leave such an luminous legacy.