Charlotte Salomon

1917Berlin, Germany | 1943Auschwitz, Poland

German painter.

Charlotte Salomon is the creator of a unique and total body of work: Life? or Theatre? This series of paintings, texts and music tells the story of her life and is built like a play. It is influenced by the works of Munch, Modigliani, Matisse, the German expressionists, and especially Van Gogh, and shifts between a naïve, illumination-like style and a very personal form of writing similar to graffiti. It closely imbricates autobiographical and historical elements, placing them under the threat of imminent doom. Seeing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes during a trip to Rome was a decisive event in the life of the young Jewish artist, who would then go on to study at the United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts in Berlin from 1935. After she took refuge in the South of France in 1939, her grandmother took her own life, upon which Charlotte discovered that she belonged to a long lineage of suicides, among them that of her own mother Franziska, who she had always believed had died of the flu. From 1940 to 1942, faced with this family inevitability and a decaying world, she shut herself away in a hotel room and painted 1,325 gouaches, from which she chose 769 to be part of the final version of her life’s work. The result was a highly complex Singspiel (a forerunner of the operetta) entitled Drei Farben Oper [tri-coloured opera], most likely in reference to Brecht’s Dreigroschen Oper (Threepenny Opera). It opens with a hummed melody, which leads into a text sung by the artist until the gouache is deemed complete. The text includes many musical notations, excerpts from Bach, Schubert and German folksongs, which the artist sang as inspiration for the drawing process.

In this sense, the narrator’s dialogues and commentaries were intended to be sung. The text is written in the form of calligrams on tracing paper overlaid on each page until the end of the prelude; in the main part, the words become part of the gouaches, overwhelming them, until they become images in their own right in the epilogue. The painter displays an impressive culture in the fields of music, literature and film, constructing her work with sequence shots and zoom effects, not unlike a storyboard. Once her work was complete, she entrusted the entire collection of gouaches to her friend, a doctor in Villefranche-sur-Mer, with the words “It is my whole life”. Shortly after, she was denounced, and was arrested, with Alexander Nagler, the man she had just married. The couple was deported to Auschwitz, where they were both killed. Charlotte was five months pregnant. While her work provides a very precise account of the stages of the tragedy undergone by European Jews, its essential dimension goes beyond the limitations of such a category: at the end of what can be considered a true art performance – not only a play, but also a challenge – the character of Charlotte Kann makes the story hers and thus becomes the artist Charlotte Salomon.

Nathalie Hazan-Brunet

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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