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Alone with Charlotte Salomon

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "Alone with Charlotte Salomon" was first published in the Partisan Review, on January 1, 2002. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.

 

In 1994, the American historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner published a biography about Charlotte Salomon, an artist who fled from Berlin to the South of France in 1939 and was deported four years later. At the age of 26 she was killed in Auschwitz. In between the flight from Germany and her forced departure to Poland, Salmon produced a corpus of over a thousand paintings. She placed over 730 of them, all gouaches paintings all of the same small size, in sequence to form a multi-dimensional oeuvre of unique pictorial expressions. Figures, landscapes, scenes, words and dialogue form autobiographical and family narratives and aesthetic, psychological and philosophical explorations. Felstiner’s biography, resting on the testimony of these images, illuminated Salomon’s family and social relationships within the debilitating political, social and emotional turmoil of Weimar Germany and the Nazi state.

In the concluding pages—a coda of sorts based upon the book’s richest themes— Felstiner hoped that Salomon’s work would finally gain proper recognition. “Life? or Theatre?” has still to reach other major museums of modern art,” she wrote, “where all its inventions ought to place it with the avant-garde: it layered a drama over real events, trespassed single frames, infused colors with sounds, exposed a script on see-through overlays, mixed words into images. Its uniqueness has captivated some art historians, and future exhibits might feature not just the scenes but also those tragicomic overlays, or the taped-over studies, or the hidden life behind the characters, or the world of exile that weighted CS’’ arms down as she sketched, or the mystery of her method....”

Now when over 400 of Salomon’s works are on display at the Jewish Museum in New York, on loan from the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, one would hope Salomon’s moment has come. It did in London where the exhibition was  shown at the Royal Academy and shepherded, explained and acclaimed by Norman Rosenthal, the Director. Unfortunately, judging from the initial reception by the New York press the response won’t be as strong in the States. The question is why. What makes so many viewers undervalue, or slight her work in New York and Amsterdam as well? What keeps Salomon from a potentially huge public that is often drawn—  in waves of acclaim or curiosity—to artistic expressions that are suggested or represented in Salomon’s work?

The first reason may be expectations. Before actually seeing the paintings, critics and writers predispose viewers to look at Salomon’s work in specific ways for certain purposes. The theologian Paul Tillich, in 1963 in one of the earliest publications about Salomon, praised her for being “universally human” and not dwelling on the horrors of the Holocaust. “But what makes this life a true symbol is something more than its universality. It is specifically the life of a very gifted and sensitive young woman, lived in one of the most terrible periods of European history, that speaks in the almost primitive simplicity of these pictures.” (1)

When the works arrived in New York in December 2000, Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, sought to reverse the Tillich approach. “Put aside, as much as possible,” he wrote, “the grim death that has boxed Salomon, like Anne Frank, into the eye-glazing, inviolate category of Holocaust artist, a disservice to her, distorting the real message of her work.” Instead, he counseled that the viewer should regard  her as a “gifted” artist who just worked “for the sake of it.” According to Kimmelman, Salomon’s artistic story is about love and art, idolized family and friends, worldly success and painful failures. The work he concluded, is a “coming-of-age story about a woman squeezing a whole life into one great gesture, and in the end her energy matters most, a civilizing energy. Becoming an artist really was a useless but indispensable act of spiritual preservation for her, and that is the work’s ultimate lesson.” (Unfortunately, the particular color reproduction chosen to accompany the review seems to justify that conclusion.) To the critic’s eye, that futile and ambitious exercise was simply beyond her “abilities.” (2)

Tillich and Kimmelman presented two very different evaluations of Salomon’s work, but both dismissed her—and possibly did not seriously consider her—as an artist who is capable of challenging our understanding of art and allowing us see the world in different ways. Thus, these two approaches don’t lead very far. And this may just be the beginning of the difficulties involved in appreciating Salomon’s work. First and foremost, she doesn’t fit into any familiar categories. The viewer is forced to approach Salomon’s work on her self-imposed, rigorously defined, individualistic terms. She stood alone in her vision, broad scope and execution. Although she often made stylistic or figurative visual references to other artists, she foreclosed every avenue of artistic similarity by her independence and original artistic expression.

Even describing the work, as opposed to explaining it, presents initial difficulties. In fact, exactly what does Salomon’s “Life? or Theatre?” consist of? It is a series of over 700 striking images, set in precise order, frequently informed by descriptive explanatory text that was placed within the image itself or on an overlay of tracing paper. The individual gouaches form a narrative of events as well as intellectual and psychological reflections that create an autobiographical/fictional account of Charlotte Salomon’s life. It is an elusive story, presented to inform both through truths and distortions, told from multiple perspectives of actions and thoughts of characters that Salomon created to personify her history and feelings. It is a deeply complex work that needs to be approached on the different levels of the narrative itself, the intellectual ruminations and the emotional explorations—all expressed through the cumulative succession of artistic images.

Salomon didn’t join, and posthumously doesn’t belong, to any school or category. She had no artistic mentors or confreres—no group of talented friends or enemies— whom history honors or finds interesting. In her work, one can discern vague signs of the future art of the 1960s through the 1990s—the monomaniacal word-art of Jenny Holtzer, the repetitious imagery of Andy Warhol or Gilbert and George; or the fixation on self in the manipulated identities of Cindy Sherman. Salomon’s experimentation, however, never exceeded the boundaries of 8x10 gouache paintings. And into a continuous, repetitive and conventional format she placed the unconventional substance of her work. Salomon’s work, although held together through a powerful narrative thread, doesn’t respond to any historical theme or embellish any established mythologies. And finally, her work doesn’t carry the slightest tinge of commercial value. The gouache paintings had little monetary value when she was alive and almost none since her death. A handful may be available on the art market. Therefore, they don’t entice the collector, whether it be a museum or individual, and entrance the public with fairy tales of unforeseen fame and wealth.

Salomon doesn’t belong to any place or nation—not to Berlin, the city where she grew up, but the city that threw her out; not to the South of France where she created her work, but from which she was removed and sent off to Poland; and not to The Netherlands, where her work “Life? or Theatre?” eventually found a permanent home, but a city that she had never seen. The Dutch connection was due to her father Alfred Solomon, a distinguished doctor and her stepmother, Paula Salomon-Lindberg, who was a renowned operatic singer. After Charlotte left Berlin for France in 1939, her father and stepmother fled to Amsterdam. They hid after  the German invasion in 1940, were captured and sent to the Westerbork camp for rerouting to the East. They escaped, hid once again, and, after the war, gratefully lived out their lives in Amsterdam. Felstiner wrote that once when Charlotte’s step mother returned to Berlin for an exhibition of Charlotte’s work, she covered her eyes to avoid viewing parts of the city which had shattered her family and destroyed her career. According to a friend, when asked in her declining years, as she became increasingly reconnected to Germany, if she would prefer to speak German rather than Dutch, Paula emphatically replied: “Aber Ich spreche doch immer Hollandisch.”

But Charlotte Salomon herself had no connection or affinity with the Dutch. Thus she is not now, nor will she ever be an icon of Dutch art. And unlike Anne Frank, Salomon will never be a Dutch icon of Dutch victimization. Ironically and unexpectedly, recognition came to both families through their daughters, although Salomon and Frank’s reputations are hardly to be compared. The parallel histories between Charlotte and Anne Frank are clear: both were German Jews who fled to another country; both died young; both families experienced temporary refuge in Amsterdam and subsequent imprisonment in Westerbork; both young women had a parent or parents who survived the war, remained in Amsterdam and became part of the shattered Dutch Jewish community that barely survived the Holocaust. Both the Salomons and Franks knew little of their daughters’ talents and nothing until after the War of their works that miraculously survived. Both families sought to excise and edit embarrassing aspects of their daughters’ creations.

All of these factors relate to the background and aura surrounding Salomon’s work. But there are other complicating limitations in the direct confrontation with Salomon’s art that also discourage interest. When one finally confronts the art on  the walls of a museum, in New York or Amsterdam, one sees only a sampling or selection—all the same sized, neatly framed images—drawn from “Life? or Theatre?” (The catalogue provides the only way to access the complete works.) And what do they show? What do they require? They demand time, concentration and a new way of looking and thinking about art. For by design and creative instinct, Salomon moved back and forth between reality and fantasy, history and reinvention, memories and reenactments, secrets and lies, humor and pathos, sardonic spoofing and profound thought, unfulfilled desires and needs, hurts, failures, hopes and loves—all formulated through her particular artistic expression.

The facts of her actual history illuminate Salomon’s work only up to a point as  she combined narrative, emotion, recollections, thought and musical references in imagery and text. She evoked the searing history of a tragic family, personal isolation and uncertainties about her strengths and stability and the tortured times of Jewish life in Europe from the First to the Second World Wars. A family suffering from emotional illness and suicides. A child desperately wanting but lacking affection— unsure of herself, jealous of others, confused and unhappy. An adolescent looking for recognition, inspiration, direction, spiritual and physical love. A European woman armed with enlightened intellectual and cultural tools of art, philosophy, music, psychoanalytic thought and religion. A woman capturing and then rearranging the lives and interactions of her family and friends (especially the triangular relationships involving herself, her mentor Alfred Wolfsohn and her step-mother Paula Salomon-Lindberg), manipulating them back and forth between actual personalities  and theatrical characters. A Jewish woman, frightened and furious over vicious persecution which closed in on her life and that of her family.

Salomon talked through images and painted through words. On sheet upon sheet of notebook sized paper, she staged her history and fantasies, setting images upon musical references. She moved through experiences, family stories and feelings in depicting a carefully constructed agglomeration of figures and interior and exterior landscapes— sometimes carefully separated, but often magically spilling over into each other. She painted thousands of memories and imaginings, internal and external conversations and feelings. Sometimes only one image on a page; sometimes a vertiginous multiplicity. Sometimes she imposed thoughts from text outside the picture; sometimes words flowed directly out of the brains or mouths of her characters. Sometimes she used tones of detachment and distance; at other times, the fiery intensity of the deepest emotions.

Salomon did all of this frenzied work, driven by the force of creativity and controlled by discipline, skill and mastery of multiple artistic forms. The need to know, understand, recollect, confront, express, hope and create—all of this she accomplished with creative self-restraint. She was absorbed in her history and desire to escape madness, chaos and futility—but not possessed by self-absorption. She refused to stay the eternal child or the beleaguered adolescent. She moved on to adulthood through personal, social and professional encounters—real and imagined—that were daring, painful, explicit, probing and honest.

Ultimately, no stylistic simplicity or simplistic explanations describes Salomon’s work. Norman Rosenthal’s introduction to the exhibition catalogue provides the most enlightened, succinct summation about the work. It exists, he wrote, on three levels: the first is that of “individual experience;” the second reveals what Rosenthal calls “an entire cultural milieu;” and the third, “the plan of the imagination.” (3) What these levels reveal will differ from viewer to viewer. But they have the unique potential to expand and uplift a viewer’s understanding of art and life. As European anti- Semitism spewed forth in 1939, the year that Salomon fled to France, a non-Jewish friend of the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian remarked to him: “J’aime les Juifs.  Je les aimes passionement. Ce n’est pas parce qu’ils sont malheureux. Non. Je les aime parce qui’ils eloignent l’horizon.”) (4) Salomon extended her horizon and ours—what more can a great artist do?

 

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About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.

Citation

Goldstein, Judith S. "Alone with Charlotte Salomon." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 19-23. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.

References

1. Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures by Charlotte Salomon, Introduction.

2. New York Times, December 29, 2000, pp. 39, 41.

3. Charlotte Salomon, Life? or Theatre, Introduction.

4. Sebastian, Mihail, Journal: 1935-1944, p. 209.

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