Tragedy and the Will to Live: The Obsessive Art of Charlotte Salomon

By turning the works into a kind of play, she could “use her artistic mind to imagine how things were in the past,” said Mirjam Knotter, the curator of the Amsterdam exhibition, which opened on Friday and runs through March 25. Although, Ms. Knotter added, “It was an entirely unique artwork, which was not meant to be played or performed.”

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“Life? or Theater” incorporates numerous artistic, historical, musical and cinematic references. Credit Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Amsterdam

Salomon, born in Berlin in 1917, came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family and watched as the world she had known as a child disintegrated when Hitler came to power. She was a reserved child, but she clearly had a turbulent and passionate inner life with an astute visual memory, “imprinting everything for future use,” according to her biographer Mary L. Felstiner.

Images she later painted of this period reveal a wry, bitter humor. Hitler’s election to chancellor in 1933 is illustrated with rows of faceless Brownshirts, painted in muddy Expressionist streaks. The swastika on a flag is reversed, a sly attempt to neutralize its power.

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In addition to Salomon’s personal experiences, historical events like the Nazis’ rise to power are reflected in “Life? or Theater?” Credit Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Amsterdam

The terror of Kristallnacht — the night in 1938 when Jewish homes, schools and businesses across Germany were ransacked — made it clear that the Salomon family was no longer safe, and Charlotte, then 22, was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in the South of France.

It was there that her grandmother killed herself, an event that led to the shattering revelation of a long line of suicides by women in the family, including, most devastatingly to Salomon, her mother, whom she had thought died of influenza.

With her grandfather taunting that she would be next, Salomon embarked on artistic creations in a bid to stave off what she saw as a family tendency toward self-destruction, inspired by the ideas of Alfred Wolfsohn, her stepmother’s vocal coach, who she had known in Berlin. Having suffered acute trauma during World War I, he had developed theories of the curative power of creativity that had a lasting influence on her.

It is unclear if Wolfsohn and Salomon were lovers. “If you look at the paintings, you kind of assume it,” Ms. Knotter said. Indeed their affair, whether real or imagined, takes up most of the central portion of the “Life? or Theater?” series. But after the war her stepmother dismissed any notion of romance between the two as fantasy.

Resolving to go deep into herself in order to make sense of her life and the chaos around her, Salomon shut herself away and, in a frenzy of creative activity, painted almost 1,400 gouaches from 1940 to 1943. The musical references which accompany the work refer to “the music she was hearing in her mind while she was creating the paintings,” Ms. Knotter explains. Salomon hummed as she worked to jog her memory, noting which song a painting was inspired by on the rear of the paper.

The paintings, text and musical references then edited into a play structure, complete with chorus, in which she and her family appear under the guise of humorous pseudonyms.

“She is the painter and the director of the play,” Ms. Knotter said, “but she is also using the role of the choir, who are commanding all the events, even the character who is an alter ego of herself.”

For Griselda Pollock, the author of a major study of Salomon’s work, the artist’s need to dramatize her past had a purpose: to help her uncover a history of sexual abuse by her grandfather — which may have included Salomon among the victims — that Ms. Pollock believes provoked the Salomon family’s many suicides.

The exhibition contains a recently discovered addition to “Life? or Theater?,” a painted letter, kept secret by her family for decades, in which Salomon appears to confess to killing her grandfather, which may give credence to the theory. However, given that Salomon’s work so clearly blends fact with fiction we are unlikely to ever know if she actually did.

One thing that does seem clear is Salomon’s desire to survive. The final image of “Life? Or Theater?” shows her in a bright green bathing suit, facing the sea, a paintbrush in hand. It is as if she had painted her past, real or imagined, so that she could turn to her future.

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“Life? Or Theater?” ends on a hopeful note, with Salomon turned toward the sea, painting, as if facing the future. Credit Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Amsterdam

But perhaps she sensed she wouldn’t be able to. Feeling a growing sense of unease as World War II raged on, Salomon packed up her work and left it with a doctor in the summer of 1943, asking him to keep it safe, as she said it contained “my whole life.”

Shortly afterward, Salomon, then 26, was deported to Auschwitz. She was killed on arrival.

Her journey to public recognition has been a long one. But perhaps the Amsterdam exhibition will shine a light on what, in the words of Ms. Pollock, was “an extraordinarily brilliant artist, creating a work under conditions where you couldn’t think anyone would create anything.”

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