CHARLOTTE SALOMON: Life? or Theatre? – Opens today at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Exhibition on view beginning March 31st through – July 31st

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

In the early years of World War II, Charlotte Salomon, a 23-year-old Jewish artist from Berlin, fled to the south of France where she shut herself into a hotel room and spent two years feverishly painting the history of her life. She called it Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music, an astounding body of over 1300 powerfully drawn and expressively colored gouache paintings conceived as a sort of autobiographical operetta on paper. On one numbered page after another, Salomon used an inventive mixture of images, dialogue, commentary and musical cues to tell a compelling coming-of-age story set amidst family suicides and increasing Nazi oppression. This singular creation would be Salomon’s only major work. Just one year after she completed Life? or Theatre?, the pregnant 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz and killed.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum will be the only museum on the West Coast to show this new installation of Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, an exhibition featuring nearly 300 of Salomon’s gouaches from the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition highlights the main acts of Salomon’s sweeping narrative, allowing visitors to appreciate not just the individual strength of each piece but also its serial nature.

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Charlotte Salomon.From Life? or Theatre?, 1940-1942.
Villefranche, France. Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.
All photos, copyright Charlotte Salomon Foundation

“Life? or Theatre? is an extraordinary work of art that deserves and needs to be seen,” says Connie Wolf, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “Anyone with an interest in the creative spirit will be moved and awed by Salomon’s compelling magnum opus. This lifetime of work, created in such a short space of time with no promise or even hope of recognition, speaks so deeply to how essential an act of art making can be. We are so thrilled to be able to bring this to a wider audience.”

THE STORY
Salomon structured Life? or Theatre? as a play with a prologue, a main part, and a finale. The prologue focuses on her childhood and adolescence in Weimar and Nazi Berlin; the main section on a man who would be Salomon’s greatest artistic inspiration and first love; and the epilogue on her life in exile.
The story was certainly her story, and she recollects it in detail, but as her own title suggests, Salomon fictionalized elements. Certain inventions are immediately apparent — she gave stage names to the family and friends that became her cast of characters including her own stand in, Charlotte Kann – but the extent to which the narrative of Life? or Theatre? embellishes or strays from the truth remains, in some respects, unknown.

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From Life? or Theatre?, 1940-1942

When the curtain goes up in 1913, an 18-year-old girl commits suicide. This is the aunt that Charlotte will be named after when she is born four years later, and it is the first of many suicides amongst the women in the family, a key leitmotiv in the work. Charlotte is raised in an assimilated Jewish upper-class household by her loving parents, Albert and Franziska, and enjoys a happy childhood. When she is 8 years old, however, her mother dies from what Charlotte is told was influenza, but in fact, was a leap from a window.

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PAULA LINDBERG, ca. 1928. Photo, Trude Kahn
Gouache from Life? or Theatre?, 1940-1942

Her father remarries a celebrated and charismatic singer, Paula Lindberg, who Charlotte adores. Salomon makes her one of the central characters of Life? or Theatre?, giving her the name Paulinka Bimbam (Lindberg’s father was a rabbi and ‘bimbam’ refers to a word from a song sung on the Jewish Sabbath). As the prologue continues, the family is increasingly excluded from public life due to anti-Semitic policies instituted after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Her father loses his job, her stepmother is barred from making public appearances and Charlotte’s worldly grandparents emigrate to the south of France. Charlotte leaves school and takes up private drawing lessons. A year later, she remarkably enters Berlin’s Art Academy, admitted as part of a small quota of Jews. She was considered an unremarkable student.

Enter Amadeus Daberlohn (whose real name was Alfred Wolfsohn), an unemployed voice teacher shellshocked from the First World War. With his extravagant theories about the connection between the soul and creativity, he would become one of the central characters of Life? or Theatre?, capturing young Charlotte’s heart. Amadeus, however, is smitten with Charlotte’s alluring stepmother, and only eventually turns his attention to Charlotte, primarily as the subject of his theoretical investigations. Salomon, acknowledging the foolishness of the situation, reserves some of her funniest and most astute character analyzes for the beloved, but somewhat pompous Amadeus. Whether or not this great, but unrequited love was more fact or more fiction, the text strongly suggests that it was this man’s encouragements that fired Salomon’s artistic ambitions and sustained her to the end of her life.

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AMADEUS DABERLOHN, Vocal Coach
He asks Charlotte: “Do you really love me?” from Life? or Theatre?
Sheet 4626. Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Amsterdam

As the story continues, Charlotte’s father is briefly sent to a concentration camp (her stepmother miraculously obtains his release). Germany is deemed too dangerous, and Charlotte is sent to her grandparents in the south of France. The epilogue begins as France declares war on Germany and Charlotte’s grandmother takes her own life out of despair at the growing threat. It is at this time that Charlotte learns about the real nature of her mother’s suicide and the history of suicide in her family. When the south of France is cleared of foreign immigrants, she and her grandfather are briefly interned in a camp, but are released due to her grandfather’s age.

Charlotte is on the brink of a nervous break down and is confronted with the choice of either committing suicide or “doing something especially crazy,” as Salomon writes on one of the last sheets of the work. Charlotte recalls Amadeus’ words, “first fathom yourself in order to reinvent yourself,” and begins working on Life? or Theatre?. Salomon writes, “And, with dream-awakened eyes, she saw all the beauty around her, saw the ocean, felt the sun, and knew: she must disappear for a time from the human surface, and sacrifice everything for this – to recreate herself from the depths of her world.”

Life? or Theatre? stops here where it begins. Acquaintances reported that Salomon was so possessed during its creation that she only rarely stopped to eat, drink and sleep. When she was finished, she handed all of the pages to a friend, saying, “Take good care of it. It is my life.”
Salomon survived for one year beyond the completion of Life? or Theatre? – a year that became increasingly dangerous after the Italians occupied Southern France and began to deport Jews to camps in Germany. Her grandfather passed away and Salomon, sheltering in a villa owned by an American woman, married the villa’s sole remaining resident, an Austrian refugee named Alexander Nagler. The marriage doomed the couple – it was Nagler’s attempt to get a marriage license at the local police station that gave them away as Jews. Salomon was pregnant when both she and her husband were picked up by the Gestapo. Salomon was killed immediately on arrival at Auschwitz; Nagler murdered a few months later.

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From Life? or Theatre?, 1940-1942

COLOR
Visitors to Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? will be struck by the range and vivacity of Salomon’s color palette. In fact, on the third page of Life? or Theatre?, Salomon refers to the work as a ‘tri-colored play with music.’  But researchers who have investigated the gouaches have determined that Salomon only used three pigments to make the entire work – red, blue and yellow (some white was used to mix colors).
While no one is sure why she constrained herself in this way, it is clear that Salomon uses color to draw distinctions between acts and moods. In the Prelude, names are painted in blue; in the main section, red; and in the epilogue, yellow. Throughout, the color palette reflects the emotional landscape. Recollections of a happy holiday in the Bavarian Alps are drawn in bright yellows and greens. Her mother’s death is rendered in much gloomier hues.

TEXT
Salomon conceived of Life? or Theatre? as a singspiel, an 18th-century German predecessor of the operetta that alternated between spoken dialogue and musical numbers. Salomon’s actors often speak in rhyme, and the text of their lyrical dialogue is as an integral part of each painting’s composition. Initially, Salomon kept all of the text on separate sheets, mostly of tracing paper the same size as the paintings, using both paint and pencil to write. Later however, only such things as chapter headings are separated, and the dialogue merges with the images on the same sheets. Salomon would convey more impassioned tones by intensifying the color of the painted words.
In the exhibition, English translations of the text in individual paintings will appear on wall labels.

MUSIC
Salomon reportedly hummed constantly while she worked, and it is this internal soundtrack, a medley of classical music, folk songs and popular music for the movies, that became musical cues jotted down throughout the work to accompany certain scenes.  In a comic gesture, the somewhat ridiculous, bespectacled Amadeus enters accompanied by the toreador’s song from “Carmen” while a simple little folk melody, ‘We twine for thee the maiden’s wreath,’ is used more ominously. The song is first noted at the festive occasion of her father and mother’s wedding, but echoes painfully and ironically when her grandmother looks out of the window at the crumpled figure of Charlotte’s mother below. The tune pursues the distraught Charlotte down the hall and into the bathroom where she shuts herself in to come to terms with her mother’s death.
Salomon explains the musical aspect of her ‘play with music’ on the first pages of Life? or Theatre?, writing, “The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. He is painting. A tune suddenly enters his mind. As he starts to hum it, he notices that the tune exactly matches what he is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in his head, and he starts to sing the tune, with his own words, over and over again, in a loud voice until the painting seems complete.”

STYLE
Salomon’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total art work’ has as much in common with the theater as it does with cinema. The work at times resembles a storyboard for a film. Often one page contains a whole story with multiple scenes fitted next to each other or layered vertically down the page. Salomon’s style is also full of long shots, close-ups, flash backs and montage.

What is also striking stylistically and compositionally is the difference between the beginning and end of the work. Early pages are rendered in rich detail and figures are painted with portrait-like clarity. In later pages, a minimum of detail is used and a hurried, expressionistic style takes over. Figures are stylized, much less representational and only suggest who the character may be. The very last pages contain only dense blocks of text. This stylistic shift could be attributed to Salomon’s growing desperation to finish the work in light of the increasingly dangerous situation she found herself in. However, Salomon suggests in her introduction to Life? or Theatre? that the changing quality of the work has to do with the characters themselves. She writes, “…The author has tried – as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section, to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.”

It has. Well-known American author Jonathan Safran Foer, who participated in the curation of a 2010 show of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam, wrote the following in a special publication about the artist and her work, “Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? didn’t strike me like lightening, but drenched me like a slowly building rainstorm. …no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theatre?.”

Click here for more information: The Contemporary Jewish Museum

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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