"Alfred Wolfsohn and Charlotte Salomon"
at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
The first exhibition of some of Charlotte Salomon’s paintings from “Life? Or Theatre?” was held in Amsterdam in 1961. This was some twenty years after its creation.Since that date, there have been many exhibitions and publications and each presentation has been a bit more complete and a little more frank about the life and inspiration of Charlotte Salomon. In “Life? Or Theatre?”, Charlotte clearly indicates that Alfred Wolfsohn (pseudonym Amadeus Daberlohn) was her mentor. However there has been very little reference made to this fact in the exhibitions and publications of “Life? Or Theatre?”. Alfred Wolfsohn is too often absent from comment or else his teachings have been put in an uninformed or dismissive light.
Sheila Braggins, Clara and I therefore decided to visit the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam (owners of Charlotte’s work) and try and present Alfred Wolfsohn’s side of the picture. In February 2007, we met with the Director and the executive secretary and after a good talk all round the subject, we were delighted that the Director invited Sheila to give a lecture on 16th September. The 16th September was the last day of the Charlotte “Work in Progress” exhibition when some of the paintings that Charlotte had rejected or decided not to include in her finished work were shown. It was a small, nicely presented exhibition in the “Drawing room” of the Museum (see later photo montage.) In future years, some of the “Life? Or Theatre?” paintings will be exhibited there.
It should be noted that the Jewish Museum in Berlin has an exhibition of “Life? Or Theatre?”, at this moment and it continues until mid-November. They do give a well informed story of Alfred Wolfsohn’s role in Charlotte’s life and in her creation. (Go and see it while you still can!)
So views on Alfred Wolfsohn are moving, as I am sure you will agree having read this page.
(For more details of Charlotte and her work, see the page on this site on the June Seminar with “Charlotte Salomon: her art and inspiration”by Clara Silber Harris.
The complete collection of Charlotte Salomon’s work is available from the Museum www.jhm.nl )
Here then is a picture of Sheila Braggins in front of the poster for the Charlotte exhibition in September 2007, followed by her lecture:
Sheila Braggins at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
"ALFRED WOLFSOHN alias AMADEUS DABERLOHN"
The Man and his Ideas
(This lecture was given with my power point images. Many of these images, you can find on the Alfred Wolfsohn photo section of this website. I have left in references to Charlotte’s paintings using the numbers of the Museum’s DVD. P.Silber)
I would like to begin by thanking several people who have made it possible for us to be here today: first, thank you to Joel Cahen, the Museum Director, for his kind invitation for me to give this lecture; then to Paul Silber, keeper of the Archives of the Roy Hart Theatre in Malerargues, France, who has prepared and organised all the images that are used, and finally, thank you all for being here. I hope you will find it an interesting and valuable experience.
Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon created over 1300 paintings of which 769 are Life? or Theatre?, her autobiography conceived as a play with music. Of these 769 paintings over 370 of them relate to Amadeus Daberlohn or a man named Alfred Wolfsohn. She entitles this as “The Main Section”, and portrays Amadeus Daberlohn, hands behind back, walking slowly into a room to ask for a work permit, but to the tune of the Toreador song from Carmen! She then adds “and now our play begins”.
The paintings in the exhibition here are known as the rejected, disapproved or reverse side of Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? I don’t know if any of you have seen the complete exhibition but the museum has a most remarkable CD Rom of all her work, with an interesting explanatory post-script written by Charlotte.
Just to remind you of her story (Charlotte self portrait ): She was the daughter of Professor Albert Salomon and Francisca Grunwald. Unknown to Charlotte, her mother Francisca committed suicide when Charlotte was eight years old, but Lotte was told that her mother died of influenza. She also knew nothing about another five members of her maternal family who had also committed suicide.
Her mother, who was acutely depressed, (painting 4175) used to speak to her about heaven and how she longed to be there. She made a pact with Lotte that if she got there she would write letters to her which she would leave on her windowsill. She died. The letters never arrived. Lotte was lonely and desolate. Her father later married Paula Lindberg, famous singer, with whom Lotte developed a strong love/hate relationship. This is evident throughout Life? or Theatre?. (4248) Here she portrays them as “lovers again” after having had a disagreement.
She also portrays Paulinka’s lack of belief in her art. Here (4339) Paulinka says to Lotte’s father “frankly I don’t understand how you can spend all that money. After all she has no talent for drawing. Everyone says so”. However, she went to art college.
During this time, the Nazi regime, Alfred Wolfsohn, a singing teacher, was unable to work as he had no work permit. He was advised to contact Paula Lindberg-Salomon who then employed him as her singing teacher. She eventually got him a teaching permit and planned to send pupils to him. He became a friend of the family and soon realised that Lotte was a complicated girl who had no faith in herself or her art. Knowing the family suicide history, he became very concerned about her unhappy nature and tried to help her by talking with her about her art and her self esteem.
In 1939 Lotte was sent to stay with her Grandparents in the South of France, where everyone felt she would be safe. Some time after her arrival her grandmother tried to hang herself. Lotte saved her. Her grandfather, in the most cruel manner, ruthlessly told Lotte the full story of all the suicides. She was devastated – but she decided to try to help her grandmother by encouraging her to do something creative as Daberlohn had encouraged her.
This eventually failed and her grandmother finally threw herself out of the window (4900 reverse side). Here Lotte sadly repeats “May you never forget that I believe in you”. This was something Wolfsohn often said to her, particularly at the moment in which she set off for the South of France, actually at the railway station.
At this time the war was getting closer, she and her grandfather were interned in a prison camp for a short period and released because of his age, but her grandfather became more and more difficult, often making sexual innuendos to her. Lotte became more and more lonely and depressed until – quote: “she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to do something wildly eccentric… and …the memory of her fervid early love came back to her”.
She remembered Daberlohn saying. “one has to go into oneself, into ones childhood – to be able to go out of oneself.” …..“And with dream awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: that she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came: Life? or Theatre?” (4925)
I met Alfred Wolfsohn in 1947. He was my singing teacher for 15 years, and for the last five years of his life I was very close to him as I helped to nurse and look after him when he was ill with tuberculosis. I did this together with his distant cousin and my greatest friend Marita Günther. During this time I got to know him as a friend, a father figure, a unique psychologist/philosopher who never stopped teaching.
He was born in Berlin on the 23rd September 1896, into a non orthodox Jewish family. His father died of tuberculosis when Alfred was ten years old and he remained devoted to his mother and older sister. He was educated at quite a famous school in Berlin and became extremely well read in all subjects, from literature to mysticism - but music was his love. He played the piano, violin and viola. However he started to study Law at University and there he had a great friend who had also been school with him, who introduced him to the love of art. So music and art became part of his life.
In 1914, when he was 18 year old, he was conscripted for the army. He fought on the Russian front and then on the French. Finally in one fearsome battle, while he was crawling knee deep through the mud he heard the screams of a comrade crying for help. He desperately wanted to go to him but he felt he had to save himself - so he crawled on, collapsed and awoke under a pile of corpses. He was believed to be dead. He crawled out and he felt he was dead. He did not know how to go on living. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital but they could not help. The personal horrors of that war left him mentally and emotionally traumatised.
It was suggested finally that he should go to Italy to recuperate. There he became absorbed in the art of that country and from then onwards the artist and his work became an ongoing study. He wanted to understand and analyse the source of each artistic creation. He never considered the artistic or monetary value of a work of art, but he was deeply involved with the content and its connection with its creator.
So the art and music of Italy finally revived him and when he returned to Germany he knew he wanted to be a singer. He had a good baritone voice before the war, so he started to have singing lessons - but his voice did not improve. He knew that the fault lay not with his teachers but with himself, it was his problem. He had lost his voice and he knew the loss was connected with his damaged soul or psyche. If he could heal himself he would heal his voice.
The war had caused him to suffer from two major traumas:
1. The loss of his God. If God exists, why does he allow this to happen - a question people have asked through the millennium
2. An overwhelming sense of guilt for not having gone to the help of the injured comrade.
The attempt to solve these traumas lead to the development of his ideas and the founding of his whole philosophy:
To understand God he needed to understand the human being on the deepest level - and to understand his own soul. To solve his guilt he was driven to help others, in fact he says: quote “all my work is bound up with the need to help other people, almost to an idiotic degree”. He would refer to this as his Saviour Complex or his identification with Saviour type.
So in order to understand his own voice problems he started to examine himself and the human voice. He thought of the voice of a baby. The baby doesn’t cry, his voice cries out of him. How can these delicate vocal cords produce such a sound? Why does it change, why does it become inhibited and cramped as the child grows? He thought of the uninhibited, terrifying screams of the dying soldiers, like the baby, often shrieking for their mothers. He thought of an early childhood memory of his mother singing a song to him of St Peter and the Angel - she used a deep voice for St Peter and a high one for the angel. He had been impressed by this even as a child.
He believed that the human voice is the first and greatest means of communication between people. If the human psyche is disturbed, inhibited or unable to allow itself free expression, the voice becomes cramped, held back, complaining or harsh.
He was impressed by Knut Hamson, the Norwegian novelist in his book Mysteries, where he speaks about the ‘’Mystery behind the voice”. You do only have to listen to people speaking to realise exactly what Wolfsohn is saying.
Wolfsohn also believed that in each human being there are male and female elements, elements often unexpressed or denied. Although the voice is affected by puberty, the gender difference, at that time, was made worse by the demands of society - men were men and women were women. Any gender over-lap was considered strange. Certainly the POP music world of today has given permission for the intermingling of vocal gender…POP males with high voices…young females in England , e.g. weather reporters, with high nasal sharp voices which unconsciously say, “I have strong qualities, like a man.”
He was excited when on two occasions he actually heard the voices of his imagination: first the Russian bass Chaliapine with his rich deep baritone. He had no fear of expressing ugly, rasping sounds if the aria required it; and then the Don Kosaken Choir, an all male choir from white Russia who escaped at the time of the Revolution – they sang from the deepest, deepest bass into the highest, beautiful soprano without a break.
At that time too Carl Jung was also writing about the anima and animus figures in each person, the anima in the man and the animus in the female. Wolfsohn believed that the integrated human being should be able to accept these different sides and, by freeing the psychological inhibitions that limit vocal expression, express the anima and animus in the voice. Finally any voice should be able to approach the range found in the traditional bass, baritone, contralto and soprano voices – and Wolfsohn’s pupils in London eventually proved that this is possible. (Jill recording) five arias from the magic flute, sung by the same female singer in the exact key in which they were written for soprano, contralto, tenor, coloratura and bass. Taken from a audio disc entitled “Alfred Wolfsohn, the Man and His Musical Ideas”, available from Paul Silber
So to return to Berlin (1931 picture) in the 1930s he started to work with people whose voices were deteriorating or people who wanted to sing but felt they couldn’t do so. Added to this he had to work to support his ailing mother: he played the piano for silent films, worked in a bank and helped children who had difficulties with maths.
Every one asks about his method of teaching, there was no method. He would ask you to sing a sound, to place it higher in the head or lower in the chest or body. He would then lead the sound higher up the piano, or lower down to the depths, depending upon what he heard and what he felt needed to be developed. He listened, and relating the sound to you, asked you to expand the sound in volume or pitch according to what he heard. For the pupil it was an extraordinary experience of discovery, of finding and hearing a new self, a new ability to express a new life within.
In the 1930s he wrote his first manuscript Orpheus or the Way to a Mask. He based the title of the book on the story of Orpheus who had to descend into Hades, the underworld, to find his lost wife, his anima figure, his voice. And, like Orpheus, Wolfsohn says, we all have to descend into the depths of ourselves before we can ascend into the heights. Until one has experienced and recognised these depths it is difficult to reach the heights.
This applies literally when working with the voice, the lower you go the easier it is to reach the higher registers. And in the lives of many artists how many artistic works have arisen out of the depths of despair into the light of creation. Wolfsohn had experienced death, he had descended into the depths of despair and he now had to become familiar with life. He realised that what matters is not whether life loves us, but that we love life and are able to express that love.
I must explain to you why the book is entitled “… or the Way to a Mask”. At one time he had seen photographs of Death Masks made on people who had died. He found that, quote: “in this moment of our crossing the borderland between life and death there must occur a final and absolute process of concentration.” His sculptor friend wanted to make a mask of his face, so he decided he must concentrate while it was being made so he sang and imagined music all the time. When the mask was removed, to his astonishment he could not recognise the face of the mask. After studying it for days he realised that it was the face of him as a young boy in a photograph he had carried around for years as a sort of talisman; he felt he had found his child side again at last, and quote: “ I had reached part of the way I had to accomplish, the part which said ‘Know thyself’ the other part was governed by the imperative ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. The way of knowing is to look. The way of loving is to act”
In his Orpheus MS Wolfsohn examines and analyses mans vast creativity. He was fascinated by dream. He believed that dream comes out of the wisdom of the deepest unconscious without censorship of consciousness.
Through the millennium of time everything that man has created has emerged from his creative unconscious, his dream centre, and is a manifestation of the creator’s unconscious dream, whether he be an artist, scientist, musician or writer. The fairy story of the flying carpet became the aeroplane. In the 15th century Leonardo da Vinci drew a helicopter and a diving bell. Scientists admit that they have solved equations during the night. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film maker has said that all his films were from his dream-source within. For many years authors have written realistically about landing on the moon. So in many ways science is catching up with science fiction.
In the 1930s there was a new art-form – the film. He was very excited by it. He felt it gave the filmmaker unlimited scope for portraying all his artistry – he can use music, voice, fast change of scenery - but best of all he can use montage, the magical change from one action to another, often superimposed over each other as it is in our dreams. He felt that film, using montage, the natural phenomena of dream, holds an important advantage over theatre or opera.
Wolfsohn believed: I quote “The film has created a union between the realm of what we call art with the realm of what we call life. Seen as its’ own reality, art represents the soul held in suspended animation and lacks the flowing movement of life. The film unifies the flowing movement of life with the quiescence of art”.
I want to refer again to the painting in Life? or Theatre? which we saw earlier. (4175) The movement of her mother’s body depicts a sort of montage which Charlotte often uses. I wonder if Wolfsohn would feel that here in her art, life does flow?
His concepts relating to dream finally lead him to investigate his ideas about Man’s biggest dream of all – the story of God’s creation of the world. The solution of this ended his search for his own God. He came to the conclusion that man has projected onto God an image of his own unconscious creative possibilities - and man will finally create life out of matter, fulfilling man’s image of God – and we are not all that short of this. So, he believed that God is the deep creative source within each one of us, a source which we need to nurture, to contact and allow freedom of creative expression.
He felt that this freedom of expression is as important in all forms of art as in voice. After all Art is the voice of the artist. In Orpheus he speaks over and over again about various artists and their work. So when he worked with Lotte and with her art student friend, Marianne, he tried to encourage them to express their inner dream in their paintings and to understand the resulting creation in relation to their soul or psyche. He gave his Orpheus to Lotte to read and the way in which she quotes him almost verbatim in Life? or Theatre? is quite extraordinary.
As things were getting more and more dangerous for Jewish people in Germany, Wolfsohn left for England in 1939. His mother had died and, to his great grief, his beloved sister would not go with him. She died later in 1943 in Concentration Camp.
In England he enlisted for the British Army and fought once again in France, this time against Germany. Here we see him playing chess with his comrades, a game he really enjoyed. All his life, he played patience and read detective stories as a relief from his serious thinking.
He was invalided out of the army in 1941 and eventually he started to work with young voices in England.
In 1946 Marianne wrote to him saying that she had heard that he was alive and would very much like to hear from him – but in view of the war she would understand if he did not want to reply. He replied and their correspondence became the beginning of his second MS – The Bridge – a bridge back to Germany. He knew about Lotte’s death but knew nothing about Life? or Theatre?. As he felt that Marianne and Lotte were soul-sisters, in order to help Marianne understand herself - he wrote extensively about Lotte, analysing her personality, her dreams and her paintings.
So in the relationship between Lotte and Wolfsohn we are extremely fortunate to have three records of this era. Written in the order of their creation they are:
1. Wolfsohn’s manuscript Orpheus or The Way to a Mask
2. Charlotte’s Life? or Theatre?
3. Wolfsohn’s second manuscript The Bridge.
In Life? or Theatre? Lotte paints the moment, she gives Daberlohn two paintings: “The Meadow with the Yellow buttercups” and “Death and the Maiden”. She says he can have one. He chooses the Buttercups but says he would like Death and the Maiden as well because “That’s the two of us”. She says he can borrow it
In his correspondence with Marianne he says of Lotte, quote: “She was extraordinarily taciturn, quite unable to break through and emerge from the barrier she had built around herself. I felt compelled to attack this barrier but when I talked to her, trying to break it down, she would gaze at me with such a challenging look which spurred me on to even greater activity, forcing me to play the clown…..I always felt I had to bring her closer to reality, there was such an air of unreality about her”.
After describing how difficult he found Lotte, Wolfsohn speaks of his Saviour Complex and his need to help people. He asks the question: “whatever induces me to play this ridiculous role? What forces me to go on talking in a never ending torrent of words? What makes me speak about every deep realisation of myself? Only because I want to help a little? – a bit embarrassing isn’t it?”
He goes on to say “I comfort myself with the thought of my favourite Michelangelo painting, God the Father breathing soul into Adam. Here a similar process occurs - God must perhaps consider himself lucky if Adam accepts his present…” He believed that this painting was one of the most profound. Quote: “The process of animation through the gesture of God’s arm is strikingly meaningful. To touch means to move, to set in motion so that life can be created. It is occurring in all forms of contact – the words of the poet touch the composer, who writes the music for a song, this in turn touches the singer, whose voice moves the audience. And the greatest act of touching is the human act of love-making where new life is created”.
Discussing this brings me to the frequently asked question “did they really have a love affair?” The answer is we shall never know, but whether they made love or not, she understood what he meant by this being the greatest and most important contact between people.To underline this (4875), in a series of paintings she depicts herself, with a shaven masculine head quoting Wolfsohn’s ideas, using his very words to encourage her grandmother to have faith in herself and find some creative outlet for her emotions.Here (4889) and in at least seven paintings she depicts herself in the same position as she depicts Wolfsohn making love to her. I am certain that this was not a Lesbian act, it is her way of depicting contact, of showing touch, hoping to that her grandmother would give birth to come creative work. It shows once again how much she fully understood his ides.
In The Bridge, Wolfsohn writes about several of Charlotte’s paintings made while they were still in Berlin. I would like to show two of them to you and give his analysis of her through her art. Here is Death and the Maiden:
He believes it was the first drawing he saw of hers, the one which urged him to help her in her struggle. He says: “Out of the painting a great longing, a cry breaks out, a yearning for an embrace, even with death……..a wish for someone to put his arms about you…..Who would have thought that death can be so human? Look at him! It is not true that a horri¬fying skeleton grins at us, no human being of flesh and blood can smile so lovingly, drawing us close”. Charlotte would have read this in Orpheus.
Later in The Bridge, he adds: “It is not without significance that Death’s hand is on the girls head. In this head darkness had reigned..…wild, restless demons from the depth had fought and clashed. In this head were the mercilessly observant eyes of a painter’s soul….eyes forced to discover the cruelty in the lack of understanding of the outer world for her inner world….eyes whose soul-vision became blurred by watching the clash between the world of ugly outer reality and that of inner dream beauty…look at the shining expression of the Maiden’s eyes, they glow and their glow relates directly with the right hand of Death which rests on her shoulder. What warmth this hand radiates! … and her eyes, what questions they ask! Will you heal me? Will you understand me? Are you my Saviour? Can I at least trust you? These unanswered questions dominate the picture”
After Death and the Maiden, he told Charlotte she had come to the end of a particular road and she should now portray the theme from another angle, the girl’s embrace with life not with death. One day, without saying a word, she handed him a drawing. He was quite shocked when he saw The Embrace (as shown above. It is unfortunate but I cannot remove the striations! PS). It represented a side of her that he did not know. Its passion and earthliness was not what he had expected. He was fascinated by the strength of expression, the firmness of line, the passion of movement. Quote “Whereas Death and the Maiden showed a lack of sensuality, the blending of figures into each other, no earthliness, only chastity and nobility of expression, The Embrace is the entwining of bodies, a strong earthliness, unrestrained abandonment and a predominant sensuality, with almost an element of lust. I am sure she had no actual experience of this as she had little to do with men and was much closer to women, but her artistic gift did not need the experience of reality to be able to portray abandonment, even to such an intense and realistic degree”- end of quote. He saw this drawing as a continuation of the first, not as the other side – and he felt one wall of rubber may have given way.
Later in The Bridge he writes most movingly: “Now whenever I look at Death and the Maiden there appears before me Lotte’s real encounter with Death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, behind the door stands a very different Death from that of her portrayal”.
He knew nothing about Life? or Theatre? until in 1961 when Paula Lindberg-Salomon sent him a brochure of the first exhibition of Lotte’s work. He was completely devastated to see paintings of himself with her and to realise how much he had in fact misunderstood the impression he had made on her. He was deep in thought for two days.
In 1958 Wolfsohn became seriously ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to Hospital. He was completely cured and after a long convalescence, returned to work. In 1962 he was again admitted to hospital to have a kidney stone operation. He contracted the deadly hospital staphylococcal disease, now known as MRSA, and died before the operation could be performed.
From 1945 to his death in 1962 he proved that his ideas about the voice could be brought to fruition, a phenomena demonstrated by many of his pupils. However, with concepts about the voice and the human being so basically grounded in tradition, it was difficult to gain real recognition in either the musical or psychological worlds in his lifetime, his ideas were too far seeing and too challenging.
After his death, Roy Hart, his most accomplished pupil, formed the Roy Hart Theatre which moved to Malerargues in France in 1975. The Theatre is still very much alive and has recently held a Seminar on the Legacy of Alfred Wolfsohn. The legacy points out that his ideas might well have died with him but for two people: Charlotte Salomon and Roy Hart. Alfred Wolfsohn continues to live both in Charlotte’s Life? or Theatre? and in the Roy Hart Theatre. It is interesting that the word “theatre” occurs in both these titles and although Wolfsohn did not speak a great deal about theatre, on hearing about a strange occurrence or someone’s outrageous behaviour he would often laugh and say, “Life is stranger than Theatre”.
Was Charlotte in fact echoing his words in the way she writes Life? or Theatre?
To finish I would like to show you a photo:
This, taken by the sea a short time before he died: In his dream about death, Wolfsohn asked his God to make him into a fermata – so that he would remain an everlasting sound placed on the horizon between the sea and the sky. Here he is looking out in his concentrated way towards this horizon. And this leads in the end to the Nietzsche quotation which he felt epitomised his whole philosophy “Lerne singen, o seele”. Learn to sing, oh my soul.
And finally (4744) Charlotte’s prophetic painting – exactly what is happening here today.
“One day people will be looking at the two of us”.
1. All copies of the work of Charlotte Salomon from the Collection Jewish Historic Museum, Amsterdam. Copyright Charlotte Salomon.
2. All excerpts and quotations from Orpheus or the Way to a Mask and from The Bridge, from the Alfred Wolfsohn Collection, Jewish Museum Berlin.
3. All photographs of Alfred Wolfsohn or his pupils and sound recordings, from the “Roy Hart Theatre Association” (Archives) www.roy-hart.com
4. The Audio excerpts from the CD “Alfred Wolfsohn – his musical ideas”, from the “Roy Hart Theatre Association” (Archives) www.roy-hart.com
- Reponses to Sheila's lecture -
Sheila Braggins spoke very eloquently in her lecture, to quote a Dutch member of Roy Hart Theatre who was there that afternoon, Maurice “I was so touched by this lecture of the English woman. She gave a very inspiring lecture. I loved her because she was so lovely and unconventional. Young in hart and spirit.”
Sheila really did reach out to her audience that day and here is another account of from a long time student and friend of the late Marita Gunther, Zwaantje de Vries:
Time goes fast as everyone knows but the 16th September 2007, will be one of these days that will be hard for me to forget - and I am sure, not only for me.
For the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, that day was the last day of the Charlotte Salomon exhibition “Work in Progress”.
For the Roy Hart Theatre, that day was the first day that the story of Charlotte Salomon and Alfred Wolfsohn was given a voice.
For me, that day was a day of reconnecting again, of realising how deeply rooted the work of Charlotte and Wolfsohn is in me and how it has affected my life.
This is why I would like to share my experience with you, readers of the Archives website.
It will be a personal sharing, because I know that all of you are familiar with the “Story” of Charlotte, Wolfsohn and the RHT.
As I was lucky enough to have been Marita Gunther’s pupil and close friend for years, Sheila's lecture did not give me any information on Wolfsohn that I hadn’t already heard. But on this special day, I was very impressed by seeing, hearing and feeling his spirit through Sheila. Marita often told me about her but we had never met. Seeing Sheila, was almost seeing Marita again. I could fully understand why these two women had a very special bond.
Sheila gave voice to Charlotte's story in paintings but the way she directed the lecture was giving voice to so much more than just that story.
In her voice, the power of creativity resonated. That power that made the work of Charlotte and Wolfsohn live on after their deaths. It was death itself that contained the source of that creativity. Everyone who has been in contact with Charlotte’s work can see what that means. As can everyone who has been lucky enough to have had singing-lessons with the student/friends who were close to Alfred Wolfsohn. During the years that Marita Günther was my singing teacher and close friend, I came to understand that her life was deeply connected to the spirit of Alfred Wolfsohn.
Before I met the RHT, I had discovered Charlotte's work. It was in the 1970’s at the first big exhibition of her work in Amsterdam. My sister, Vera, and I went there. I cannot describe the shock it gave us. The only answer we had was to cry and we were not the only ones.
Something moved us very deeply but that was not all. Since both of us were painters, we realised through her work that art can be personal and subjective. That fact in itself was already amazing because at that time one was supposed to paint wildly and abstract with no relation to ones own soul and that was not the story we wanted and needed to tell.
Much later I realised that our shock must have had everything to do with an awareness of death.
At the time, we were not yet conscious of its devastating influence on our youth and our own war-traumatised parents.
But what we did know after seeing Charlotte’s work was that creativity, art, theatre and music were the tools we needed to survive - and much later also to heal. So one could say, we dedicated our lives to, in fact, 'Leben? oder theater?'
And although my sister and I went different ways, Charlotte's book was and is for us both like an anchor in our development. If life is hard or my expression lacks inspiration, turning the pages of Charlotte’s book always gives consolation . “Yes, art is life: my life and your life.”
Some years later, Vera, R'dwan, Iara and I went to Alès in the South of France and were participants in one of the first RHT Workshops. Diana Palmer and Robert Harvey opened the doors to my singing voice.
This first workshop gave me the same quality of shock, My expression was mine and did not need to fit into a model or school. My singing voice was emerging from a place where I was me, myself.
Frightening. I needed time to fully comprehend the idea that there was no way back. Or actually, no way to try and get away from that source. More and more towards me. That was the only choice left for me to move on my way.
Sheila on that day personified these spirits for me as she spoke of Wolfsohn and Charlotte.
Through her I could reconnect again with Marita, and also with these first meetings with the theatre.
'Life or Theatre' was breathing in every cell of the RHT in those days. It was the way of being dedicated to life, to the other, to the quality of interaction in the daily routines and its condensation in the singing lessons that brought the spirits of Charlotte Salomon, Alfred Wolfsohn and Roy Hart into my life - and into the lives of others.
I personally miss this sometimes. It is not easy to feed oneself without the support of others.
And one day, suddenly there is a mail from Clara and Paul, telling me that there will be a lecture on Wolfsohn and Charlotte in Amsterdam. All at once I am awake, as if home is calling “There is a party and you are invited to this special occasion.!”
So it came that I could witness others hearing this important story of how Alfred Wolfsohn and Charlotte Salomon came to the inevitable choice to do the work they did.
I hope that you, dear friends, realise how important it is to keep telling about the source of the work. I am convinced that there is a need for that in the world.
And it is a big shame that Alfred Wolfsohn, his pupils, his work and the RHT, still are so unknown.
I am very happy to have been to the lecture, and having had a good time with Clara, Paul and Sheila afterwards. For me our circle felt larger than the four persons at that table in an Amsterdam restaurant. The circle included those who couldn't be there and those who left us to other dimensions.
That is why I felt reconnected again with that spiritual family of creativity.
That is why it felt like coming home..
Thank you for being there!
Clara, Paul and Sheila, thank you for the 16th September!
Zwaantje de Vries
Zwaantje (far right) and Maurice (second row, centre) with Iara and Rdwan, the first arrivals at the lecture
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