Charlotte Salomon, Leven? of Theater? [Life? or Theater?], 1940-1942, gouache, Collection Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam © Stichting Charlotte Salomon
Until 25 March 2018, the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam will present Life? Or Theatre?, by Charlotte Salomon (Berlin, 1917 – Auschwitz, 1943), made from 1940 to 1942, in the form of several hundred gouache watercolour works. In this extraordinary body of work painted by a former student of the Berlin University of the Arts during her exile in France, she depicts her own story, but also that of Europe.
This three-part collection has survived thanks to a doctor in Villefranche-sur-Mer, to whom C. Salomon had entrusted it. Her phenomenally contemporary pictorial style, along with the freedom and freneticism found throughout the book, express the state of mind of their author. She threw herself entirely into the production of these illustrations upon her return from the Gurs internment camp, where, as a Jew, she had been sent in 1940.
This masterpiece that enabled her to exorcise a tragic familial fate displays rare creativity and great technical mastery. Each gouache describes a scene in one or several ‘shots’, in the manner of a storyboard. Inspired by her life, while remaining an entirely imaginary version of it, this story presents characters close to the artist. Nevertheless, she does not express herself in the first-person singular and gives herself the name Charlotte Kahn, as though to lend herself the distance required to paint her story. All of her entourage are also re-baptised and presented in an incipit in which the images are associated with words through a system of transparent layers. Similarly, tracing paper layers are juxtaposed with the watercolours and are reserved for words, very abundant in this work – calligrams that waver and coil around some of the painted forms. The dancing words indicate C. Salomon’s desire for this text not to be read in a monotonous manner, but instead like a nursery rhyme or even an opera: to paint her story, she chose operatic form, orchestrated using three dominant colours. As her story progresses, her style evolves and moves away from that of her 1940 self-portrait altogether. Motifs become offset and repeat, eventually flying off the page.
Curator Batya Wolff has meticulously composed this tribute to the perseverance of an artist who projected herself into her own existence in order to transcend it on paper and share it with audiences. Wolff has favoured a sober scenography that is, however, dominated by yellow, which exacerbates the solar character and electrifying power of these pages. New multimedia applications were developed for this exhibition.1 Visitors can also listen to the music C. Salomon refers to in her artwork. The last part of the exhibition is devoted to all of the creations (operas, books, documentaries, films etc.) inspired by her story, which has elicited and continues to elicit intense emotions among audiences and among many artists.2
The exhibition ends with the long painted letter that C. Salomon added to her work in the spring of 1943. It is at once a love letter and the expression of her self-awareness as an artist. Several months later, at the age of 26 and five months pregnant, C. Salomon was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Charlotte Salomon. Leven? of Theater?, from 20 October 2017 to 25 March 2018, at the Joods Historisch Museum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands).