Charlotte Salomon: the Mother of the Graphic Novel
Known for her massive artwork of nearly 1,300 pictures produced in 18 months, German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon became an iconic figure during the 20th century. Despite the tough conditions, a life dominated by death and loss, she was an incarnation of woman`s fortitude.
Charlotte Salomon, the only child of Albert Salomon and Fränze Grunwald, was born 16 April 1917 in Berlin. She came from a family with a history of suicides. Her aunt committed suicide five years before Charlotte`s birth, the mother – 13 years after. The young girl did not know the real cause of her mother`s death. For a while, it was commonly believed Fränze Grunwald died of influenza. Charlotte was left with father, who continued working as a surgeon in a hospital until he met the dramatic opera singer Paula Lindberg. Their relationships soon led to marriage. On the one hand, Charlotte got acquainted with the musical world of Berlin, on the other hand – she was left to her own devices.
In 1935 Charlotte was accepted for the Art Academy being the only Jew in her class. According to the Art Academy policy, just a few Jewish students were allowed to study if their parents had been on the front in The World War. As Charlotte’s father had been a Doctor on the frontline, she was allowed to attend classes. The atmosphere during the lesson was not laid-back and relaxing because Professeur Ludwig Bartning was a true Anti-fascist, so he kept a watchful eye on Charlotte.
After the Nazis came to power the situation has changed tremendously. Charlotte dropped out of school and started drawing on her own. That was a period of her first love affair. The one she had chosen was twice her age named Alfred Wolfson. He was a Jewish musician and the first one who noticed depth and skill in Charlotte`s pictures. He believed that people evolve and grow throughout the lives, change because they are aspiring to be something more, for themselves and their loved ones. Alfred encouraged her to keep working and search for her soul in painting. At the same time, Charlotte`s father lost his professorship and had no more right to practice as a doctor. The thing got worse for Charlotte`s stepmother as well. She could not work as a singer and perform in public anymore.
In 1934 Charlotte’s maternal grandparents decided to emigrate to Rome. There was no choice for Charlotte, and she settled with them in Villefranche on the French Riviera. After her parents sent her from Berlin to live with her grandparents in the south of France, Salomon worked in solitude in a small hotel in St. Jean Cap Ferrat from about August 1941 to August 1942 to create a remarkably innovative narrative in images and words, painted in gouache on paper (Salomon, Charlotte, and Trans. Julia Watson 410).
World War II began, approximately 78 000 Jews left the territory of Germany. In 1940 the whole Denmark and Norway got invaded by Germany. Despite the Danes and Norwegians` attempts to prevent the Nazis from harming Jews, in April the Secret order by the High Command of the Armed Forces was released. According to the rule, persons of mixed blood and husbands of Jewish women must be discharged. SS official Odilo Globocnik announced a plan to increase the use of Jewish forced labor and to establish separate work camps for Jewish men and women. As a result, captive Jews at Stutthof, Poland, were forced to leap into open latrines – many are drowned or beaten to death (“Timeline Of Jewish Persecution In The Holocaust”).
In early spring 1940 Charlotte`s grandmother was not able to withstand the burden of the War and committed suicide. It was only then that Charlotte learned that her mother did not die from influenza, as she had been told, but was also a suicide. Indeed, there were five suicides in her mother`s family. As she rationalized: “She found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric… She had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depth” (Weisberg, Ruth, and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner 52). Charlotte responded quite unusually to all the destruction which surrounded her. Unlike most family members, she did not decide to destroy her life but rather to recreate it. Jewish vulnerability to Nazi persecution can be seen as leading to multiple forms of improvisation – to small as well as more significant acts of daring and resilience. These forms of resistance create stories of survival (Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer 65).
However, Salomon’s numerous visual representations of her contemplation of suicide and psychological instability indicate that these thoughts were a constant barrage on her consciousness. Salomon did not commit suicide, and instead decided to create Life? or Theatre? However, the consistent appearance of suicidal ruminations throughout the series signifies the intrusive quality of these thoughts, which continued to plague Salomon throughout what remained of her life and failed to assimilate into her personal story, despite her attempts at creating context and narrative.
In the face of death, she made no attempts to resist or escape her murderers. In the middle of the war, under immediate threat of deportation from France, Salomon married Alexander Nagler, a Jewish refugee from Austria. They hold the ceremony openly under their real names, and when the authorities ordered Charlotte to appear, she willingly presented herself (Brenner, Michael, and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner 840).
In September 1943 Charlotte and her husband were picked up by the Gestapo and taken, via the Gestapo headquarters at the Hotel Excelsior in Nice to the transit camp of Drancy, near Paris. Being four months pregnant, Charlotte was killed immediately after arrival. It was the act of putting women and children first. Of all the deceptions a death camp settled on, this one went down most in-depth. This was the hardcore of the Holocaust (Rupp, Leila J., and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner 9). Her husband did not live much longer, and he was put to forced labor until he died of exhaustion on 1st January 1944.
The vast majority of the artists have not written about their creative processes or their inner lives. Others often write about artists, speculating, guessing about their inner worlds. On account Salomon, she tells everything about her life, her way of seeing, her struggles via pictures in “Life? Or Theater?” She uses gouache as a basic technique while creating a piece of Art. To go beyond what has been done before the artist did not concentrate only on color to reflect her emotional state, she also used brushwork. It might be noticed in most of her works, especially the later ones: the character of brushwork is loose just as if she was in a hurry. This thousand gouaches give the impression that she knew how little time she had left (“Interview Paula And Albert Salomon For Pariser Journal”). Metaphorically might be said that working on her last pictures, Charlotte looked death in the eye. The circumstances under which she painted indicate enormous efforts and strength the artist possessed.
Charlotte Salomon subtitled “Life? Or Theater?” a “play” not only because she understood that her existence was contingent on acting, but because she recognized theatre as “an art form whose primary function is to meditate on the threshold that heralds between-ness” (Phelan 16).
“Life? Or Theater?” inhabits the liminal space between supposed opposites – life and art, life and death, and ultimately art and death. Painted in 1942, an even more terrifying time for European Jews than 1939/40, the epilog is filtered through hindsight, with the horrors of the later date.
According to Rubenstein, as history progressed her paintings changed to a far cry from much of what has done before. There are no interior settings, just figures against a white background, a few lines to indicate a bed perhaps, some words loosely written in upper-case letters. Colour is rudely dragged across the paper with violent brushstrokes. The figures are often nothing more than empty outlines (Rubenstein 114).
Charlotte created something unique in the history of art and autobiography. Considering the book from another angle, the critics might say it lacks text. The trick is that the lack of writing in “Life? Or Theater?” could be regarded as an example of certain constriction. Herman says these images that depict the events leading up to Salomon’s flight from Berlin are indicative of a profound passivity. It is unsurprising that she would not, or could not, narrate these pages, as they illustrate a fundamental moment in her predicament. Perhaps Salomon was not ready to attach any text or emotion to these memories (Herman, Judith Lewis).
Even though Charlotte Salomon painted only her past, she did so with an eye to the future – an uncertain eye, to be sure. However, she painted with hope in spite of her certainty of extinction (Barnett 120).
In 1963 the first book on Charlotte Salomon was published. After a while, in 1971, Paula Salomon donated “Life? or, Theater?” Since then, it has been housed at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and many of artist`s works have been published.
Although Charlotte Salomon became the Holocaust Victim and was sent to the gas chamber, she valued the life with all its joy and sorrow. Most people who surrounded her gave up and committed suicide. However, she struggled for survival. Salomon`s remembering is at once personal and cultural. Creating “Life? or Theatre?” was, in part, an attempt for Salomon to reconstruct, contextualize, and narrate traumatic memories and allow them to become part of her narrative, valuable and essential to all humankind.
Barnett, Claudia. “Painting As Performance: Charlotte Salomon’s “Life? Or Theatre?”.” 2003, pp. 97-126.
Brenner, Michael, and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. “To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon In The Nazi Era..” The American Historical Review, vol 102, no. 3, 1997, p. 840. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2171594.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma And Recovery / Judith Lewis Herman. 2001.
Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer. “Vulnerable Lives: Secrets, Noise, Dust.” Profession, vol 2011, no. 1, 2011, pp. 51-67. Modern Language Association (MLA), doi:10.1632/prof.2011.2011.1.51.
“Interview Paula And Albert Salomon For Pariser Journal”, director. 1963.
Phelan, Peggy. Feminist Film And Video. [New York, N.Y.], [Women & Performance Project At The New York University/Tisch School Of The Arts, Dept. Of Performance Studies], 1993.
Rubenstein, Raphael. “Charlotte Salomon: A Visual Testament.” Art In America, 1999, p. 114.
Rupp, Leila J., and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. “Committing Survival.” The Women’s Review Of Books, vol 12, no. 2, 1994, p. 8. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/4021987.
Salomon, Charlotte, and Trans. Julia Watson. “Charlotte Salomon’S “Postscript” Tolife? Or Theatre?.” Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture And Society, vol 28, no. 1, 2002, pp. 421-429. University Of Chicago Press, doi:10.1086/340917.
“Timeline Of Jewish Persecution In The Holocaust.” Jewishvirtuallibrary.Org, 2017, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/timeline-of-jewish-persecution-in-the-holocaust.
Weisberg, Ruth, and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. “To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon In The Nazi Era.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol 17, no. 2, 1996, p. 51. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/1358473.