Charlotte Salomon, “Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music)” (1941–42), gouache on paper; Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Salomon ® [first painting of “Life? Or Theater?”; overlay text reads: “And from that came: Life or theatre???”] (all images courtesy Jewish Museum London)

LONDON — The brutally short life of Charlotte Salomon? It was lived on the keenest of knife edges, from first to last. The surname itself, with its solemn biblical soundings, seems to toll like an ominously slow bell. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in the Weimar Republic in 1917, her mother Franziska committed suicide when she was 8, a fact that was kept from her daughter for years.

Mental instability was a blight upon the family that never went away. Other relatives had taken their own lives in the past, or would do so during her own lifetime. Her grandmother committed suicide shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Charlotte herself was to die by the hands of others. She perished in Auschwitz at the age of 26.

And in the years immediately before that death, her life was lived in conditions of the utmost precariousness, in occupied France, and it was there that she conceived the project of re-creating the story of her own family, painting her way through — and perhaps beyond — her own suicidal inclinations.

Charlotte Salomon, “Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music)” (1941–42), gouache on paper; Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Salomon ® [part of a conversation between Charlotte and her grandmother before the latter commits suicide; image text reads: “’And still there is joy, and still the flowers grow, and still the sun shines.’”]

As she painted, what was at first dimly recalled began, little by little, to take on meaning, life, solidity. It is a work, she wrote in a note to what she had done, that became “soul-penetrating.”

And so the story of this remarkable exhibition of small gouaches, all made during the last two years of her life, is one of a difficult and painful redemption of sorts through art. Or perhaps partial redemption. Can art redeem though? Would Charlotte herself have thought so? Yes, I believe, to a degree. It can represent a species of fight-back, a system of ordering, or, at worst, the stuttery blurt of an explanation of sorts. To explain oneself to oneself – as Charlotte does here – is also to explain oneself to others, surely. All these things are achieved here, resoundingly.

What we see on the walls of the Jewish Museum on a quiet Victorian side street in the raucously crowded, teen-beguiling, razzmatazz district of Camden, North London, is about one-third of the small paintings, all of a regular size, that formed part of a huge project called Life? Or Theatre?, which would eventually consist of more than 750 individual works on paper.

Charlotte Salomon, “Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music)” (1941–42), gouache on paper; Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Salomon ® [Amadeus Daberlohn tells his life story to Paulinka Bimbam, the opera singer; this is one of several paintings featuring his memories; image text reads: “‘And I began to study myself, and became aware that there are two sides to everything: day and night, sun and shadow, death and life. With one of those sides, with death, I was now familiar, because, you see, I had risen from the dead. There remained only for me to become familiar with the other side, with life, in order to be this perfect creature whom you see before you’; DABERLHON: ‘In my opinion you are destined to create something above average’”]

The whole thing, created between 1940 and 1942, and arranged around these walls like a spasmodic frieze of cinematic stills, is a doggedly clever and often delightful gobbet of stage-crafted, serendipitously wayward extended storytelling, introduced and presented as if it were a play, with a multifarious cast of characters, complete with discreet scenes, thematic breaks, and surging forward developments as emotions run high. It is a private memoir pried open, made public, the on-off story of her family, sometimes barely fictionalized through comic variants on their own names, reaching back into the past (it begins in 1913 and ends around 1940), and then engaging with the present of Charlotte’s own lifetime. It takes in the domestic, the social, and the political.

Humans are made puppet-like by elongation. The atmosphere is poised somewhere between the bleak and the playful. It is both light of touch and ominous. She loves the dizzying aerial viewpoint, the collapsed perspective – we see into a suite of grand bourgeois rooms as if they were the interior of a doll’s-house glimpsed from above. She is fond of strong primary colors boldly contrasted — red, blue and yellow, for example – in mysterious scenes made out, with some difficulty, through a bruised blue murk.

She comments, often at some length, on the scenes that she is conjuring into life. At first, this commentary appears on very thin, fragile sheets of paper which overlay the paintings themselves. Her penmanship is both delicate and sophisticated in its maneuverings, yet childlike, almost doll-like, as well, in a folkloric kind of way.

Charlotte Salomon, “Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music)” (1941–42), gouache on paper; Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Salomon ® [Amadeus Daberlohn says to Charlotte: “May you never forget that I believe in you”]

These commentaries are often so comically discursive that it is as if we are being invited to stare not only into the heart of the paintings themselves, but into Charlotte’s own detailed recollections and fantastical re-imaginings of the scenes evoked. About the painting, “Of Franziska Knarre Kann and her philosophical reading circle,” for example, she writes:

Before it starts, we can see Franziska Knarre Kann sitting here at the table, as she explains the equation of the three transformations of the human spirit at a philosophical reading circle. That, to begin with, a human being is like a camel carrying a heavy burden, trotting across the desert. Here he becomes a roaring lion, furiously crying for freedom.

Later on, this commentary weaves its way across the painted surface. When the subject rises to a fever pitch of passion – during the period that encompasses Charlotte’s emotional embroilment with Amadeus Daberlohn, her stepmother’s singing master, for example – words, words, words, tight-packed, rhapsodic, soul-stirring, and giddily Nietzschean, come surging in. She called Amadeus her ‘prophet of song’.

Charlotte’s roles throughout are multiple. She is the narrator, the commentator, the exhumer who forces herself to dig out the often painful truth beneath the veneer of normality and respectability. The terrible stain of Hitler, who came to power in 1933, when Charlotte was 15 years old, is always just beneath the skip and the skin and the meander of the later part of the story. She called it a play with music because she cites many musical references within individual paintings, as if expecting a sympathetic tune to leap out of the silence of our absorbed looking. “Since I myself needed a year to discover the significance of this strange work,” she wrote, “many of the texts and tunes, particularly in the first paintings, elude my memory and must – like the creation as a whole so it seems to me – remain shrouded in darkness…”

Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre? continues at the Jewish Museum London (Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London, England) through March 1.

For those who have no intention of squaring up to the noisy hurly burly of Camden Market in north London any time soon, two recent books can be highly recommended for further reading: Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock (Yale University Press) and Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? — a selection of 450 gouaches (Taschen).

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...