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The Least-known Modern Artist

Reading Charlotte Salomon

Edited by Michael P. Steinberg and Monica Bohm-Duchen

Cornell University Press, 233 pages, $39.95.

Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater?

The New Museum, Yad Vashem, June 16-October 1.

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Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered by the SS in 1943, is perhaps the most moving of modern artists. She is also one of the least known, in large part because her work is so hard to present and even harder to place.

Her magnum opus, titled “Life? Or Theater?” consists of almost 800 gouaches on paper. Together they constitute a narrative, and nearly all are inscribed with text (some on transparent overlays; others directly on the painting). As if that were not enough, “Life? Or Theater?” is studded with cues to popular and classical tunes that are meant to serve as its musical score. But what, precisely, is it? While it is a unified work, it is also a stylistically diverse series of paintings. While it is usually exhibited on the walls of museums, it could just as reasonably be presented horizontally, like a book. It makes sense to treat it as a graphic novel, a story of ironic complexity and brutal honesty. But of course there is also the title, which indicates that this is really a piece of theater. Salomon did call “Life? Or Theater?” a Singspiel — an operetta based on well-known music — and provided it with the trappings of one, including a playbill.

It is just as hard to decide which context actually defines Salomon’s brief life. She belonged to an accomplished, assimilated family of Berlin Jews, seven of whose members (including Salomon’s mother, grandmother and aunt) committed suicide between 1910 and 1940. She came of age under the Nazis; had an affair — documented at length in “Life? Or Theater?” — with her stepmother’s boyfriend, and was sent to what appeared as the relative safety of the South of France at the start of the Second World War, only to be interned by the French at the Gurs concentration camp. Released from Gurs, she worked without a stop for more than a year on “Life? Or Theater?” She entrusted it to an indifferent American protector right before being deported to Auschwitz, where, several months pregnant, she was killed at age 26.

The current exhibition “Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater?” (on view at the New Museum at Yad Vashem through October 1) and the recent collection of essays“Reading Charlotte Salomon” approach their quarry in radically different ways and make different claims on the painter. Was she a survivor of family torment or a victim of the Third Reich?

Not surprisingly — considering the mission of Yad Vashem — the interpretive materials for “Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater?” frame the painter’s life in terms of its gruesome end. To cast Salomon as a victim in this way adds even more pathos — or irony — to the artist’s already rather fraught story. She made it quite clear that she created “Life? Or Theater?” so as not to commit suicide. But no sooner had she chosen life and art than the SS murdered her. As Yehudit Shendar, the show’s curator, puts it, Salomon’s psychic resolve and artistic creativity helped her avoid her family’s destiny, “but couldn’t withstand the physical power of Nazi troops.”

This would be a grim conclusion if, in fact, it were the conclusion. But it is not. For, as Shendar is quick to point out, Salomon’s work has survived

to serve as a stubborn memorial to the artist. “Art cannot replace life,” Shendar writes, “but it has the power to endure. In this display of her works at Yad Vashem, Charlotte Salomon finally becomes the victor in the cruel theater of life.”

This is a rather audacious assertion. After all, Salomon’s work has been on constant, if not quite permanent, display for decades at the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and has been shown in a number of countries. Jerusalem is merely the latest stop in what amounts to a traveling exhibition. Even so, Shendar seems confident that Salomon can only be accorded her final victory in the context of Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial par excellence. She is saying that only in the lengthening shadow of Auschwitz can Salomon’s art take on its meaning and work its redemption.

The essays in “Reading Charlotte Salomon” — the first academic collection dedicated to “Life? Or Theater?” — could not disagree more. They are almost unanimous in their refusal to place the artist so squarely in the context of the Holocaust. One of the editors, Monica Bohm-Duchen, suggests that we should value Salomon’s greatest work for “its complex and troubling insights into a life before Auschwitz.” Dorothy Duerkle, a contributor, goes as far as to say that critical emphasis on the Shoah has blinded us to what “Life? Or Theater?” is really about. It is, she argues, really about trauma.

More than half the articles in “Reading Charlotte Salomon” interpret the artist in the knotty psychological terms of postmodern trauma theory. They thus present Salomon as a more contemporary, more international figure — the artist as both a woman and a survivor. They pay closest attention not to the political trauma of National Socialism, but to domestic trauma, to the suicides that drive the narrative of “Life? Or Theater?”

In a far-reaching essay that will probably set the terms for future studies of “Life? Or Theater?” noted feminist art historian Griselda Pollock argues that Salomon’s great work should not be taken as evidence. It is not an autobiography, but “a fantasia — a screening of a life-saving movie.” Its pages recount “not real but invented” memory. They make up a fiction that succeeds because it lends structure to the harsh, inchoate stuff of Salomon’s family misery. It thus permits a form of psychic mastery over incapacitating loss. Pollock describes “Life? Or Theater?” as a “borderspace of shared trauma, which was both traumatizing yet solacing through the invention of memory through which trauma could be moved on from through the play of hybrid modernist representation.”

While Pollock’s arguments are wonderfully suggestive, this kind of prose remains icily forbidding. Moving through this collection, one often gets the sense that the desire to shatter old certainties inevitably leads to the consecration of new ones, each with its own jargon and pieties. Nevertheless, at its best, “Reading Charlotte Salomon” broadens and deepens our approach to her work.

It will take us a while to catch up to Charlotte Salomon. Yes, yes, she was assuredly both a victim and a survivor. But she was also, thank goodness, a good deal more. “Life? Or Theater?” is rich, harrowing and ultimately gorgeous. A talented painter, Salomon clearly understood most of the prevailing modes of modern art. Her stylish and often experimental compositions show that she had taken as her models Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, Nolde and Munch, among others. As a result, she was equally skillful with brilliant color and oppressive monotone. She could express both the lightness of the French post-impressionists and the claustrophobia of the German expressionists. What is more, “Life? Or Theater” also reveals profound literary gifts. In its mixture of genres and its energetic mastery of forms, as well as in its sympathy, irony and manic flight from despair, “Life? Or Theater?” is a fitting culmination of German Modernism. It is also a work that stands — improvisational, brave and vulnerable — completely on its own.

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