In the summer of 1940, by her own account, Charlotte Salomon found herself “facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something quite insanely extraordinary”. She decided to do something extraordinary. Already in hiding, as a Jewish woman in the south of France, for the next two years she shut herself away from the world and worked day and night to create an epic autobiographical series of 769 paintings in gouache (a kind of thickened watercolour paint). A further 320 pages of text painted in stark capitals on tracing paper overlaid the images and provided narration and commentary on the events they depicted, leading up to the climactic end of the story – the creation of the work itself. The final text page reads: “She had to vanish for a time from the human surface and make every sacrifice to create her world anew out of the depths.”
The result was a work that Salomon called “Life? or Theatre?” (now reissued in an elegant new edition from Taschen), and it is one of the strangest and most powerful achievements of 20th-century art. Divided into a prelude that treats Salomon’s family history and childhood up to the early 1930s, a main section about her life and loves in adulthood that grows increasingly dark as the decade progresses, and a brief epilogue covering the horrors of the wartime years, the work is extraordinarily rich in visual and textual detail. When it was first circulated in the 1960s, Salomon was sometimes compared to Anne Frank, but this is to miss the mature stylistic command and range of reference present in her work.
To complete the work in summer 1942, Salomon painted a final page showing herself in a green bathing costume, paintbrush in hand, looking out to sea, with the title inscribed on her tanned back. It seems like an image of infinite promise: a 25-year-old artist coming to the height of her powers, having completed her first masterpiece, sitting in quiet concentration in the blazing light of the Mediterranean. But it is a moment of peace briefly won out of immense suffering. By February the next year, having left the paintings in the hands of a friend, Salomon would be murdered on her arrival at the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She was five months pregnant.
This was not the first tragedy in Salomon’s family. The picture of upper-middle-class Jewish life in Berlin during the Nazi era presented in “Life? or Theatre?” is framed by a long history of domestic turmoil. Salomon, born in 1917 in Berlin, was named after her aunt Charlotte, who had drowned herself in a lake four years earlier, aged 18. Salomon’s mother, deeply depressed, killed herself by throwing herself out of a third-storey window in 1926, when her daughter was eight. (Salomon was told her mother had died of influenza.) Increasing hostility to Jews caused Salomon to end her school studies prematurely before gaining her Abitur, and at art school she was banned from receiving the prize she had won for her picture, “Death and the Maiden” – in which the two figures are said to represent her and her first love, the singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn, who would become the central character in “Life? or Theatre?”
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Salomon’s father Albert, who had served at the front as a military surgeon in the first world war, was arrested and briefly interned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp before being released, and it was decided that Salomon should leave the country, joining her grandparents in Nice. Her father later fled to Amsterdam with his second wife, where they would survive the war, but she never saw them again. In the south of France there was no respite from the suffering: in 1940 Salomon’s grandmother, fearing the German advance, followed her two daughters by killing herself (again by jumping out of a third-storey window). Salomon was left caring for her grandfather, who was in a state of declining mental and physical health, while she lived in constant fear of arrest. Later pages in “Life? or Theatre?” imply that her grandfather sexually abused her: “You can lie down with me in a bed just like that,” he says, dressed in his nightshirt. In this atmosphere of almost unbearable mental pressure, Salomon embarked on the work that, as she saw it, would allow her to come to terms with the past and free her from its terrible burden.
The sequence of paintings is framed by death, beginning with her aunt Charlotte’s suicide, and ending with a conversation between Salomon and her grandfather in which she says, “I have the feeling as if one has to put the whole world together again”, and he replies, “Now conclusively take your life, so this babble finally stops.” A series of text pages rediscovered in the last few years, which bear an ambiguous relation to “Life? or Theatre?”, added a further layer of ambiguity to the scene, by presenting the confession, possibly fictional, that Charlotte herself had killed her grandfather in 1943 by lacing his omelette with barbiturates.
One might think that an artwork with such a heavy subject matter would collapse under the weight, but the remarkable thing about “Life? or Theatre?” is how playful, colourful, and sometimes oddly light-hearted the sequence is. Salomon labelled her work as a Singspiel, an old-fashioned form of frivolous musical theatre; her characters are known by comical pseudonyms (Paulinka Bimbam, Dr. Singsang, Professor Klingklang); the narrative proceeds with comic-book pace, usually with several scenes depicted on the same page; the text provides an eccentric, ironic commentary, sometimes breaking into crude doggerel; and Salomon’s visual inventiveness, expressiveness of line and vibrancy of colour make each page thrilling to look at. When Salomon handed over her masterpiece before being deported, she instructed her friend to “Take good care of it, it is my entire life”. Few lives so short have yielded such a rich archive.