Charlotte Salomon

 

Artist, Painter

1917 - 1942

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917, the daughter of a cultured Jewish surgeon. When she was nine years old her mother committed suicide, and when she was twelve her father took Paulinka, a famous opera singer and the daughter of a cantor, as his second wife. Charlotte was a morose child, abnormally shy and slow of speech. She worshiped her stepmother, but deliberately annoyed her at the same time. As a twenty-year-old student at the Berlin art academy, she met—through Paulinka—and fell in love with an extraordinary man nearly twice her age, Alfred Wolfsohn. His theories and philosophy of life and singing inspired her.

(In her paintings she refers Alfred Wolfsohn as Daberlohn, but the figure is clearly Alfred Wolfsohn. You will see, if you study the paintings, that he has an extensive effect on her life. It was via his teachings that she decides to make the collection "Life or Theatre" rather than take her own life, even the title reflects something of Alfred Wolfsohn's teachings.)

Brackets Paul Silber, Malérargues 2006

Not long after the start of her secret affair with Wolfsohn, there was the terror of Kristallnacht, and Charlotte was sent to the south of France to stay with her maternal grandparents. There her grandmother committed suicide, and her grandfather revealed to her the fact of her mother's suicide and that of several other members of the family whom Charlotte had believed to have died natural deaths.

Charlotte felt that she had no more life left to live. The Nazi threat was compounded by her family doom. As she put it, she now had the choice of taking her own life or doing something undreamt-of. She undertook the latter, and succeeded. She called on all her reserves — her near - absolute visual recall of her own life, her iron grasp of the character of her family and friends, her artistic talent and training, and, most important of all, her inspiration by Alfred Wolfsohn. He had taught her that only by plumbing the dark side of life could she understand her own existence. She accepted his challenge. In 769 merciless, humorous, and unforgettable paintings, she elevated her life into what Alfred Wolfsohn (or Daberlohn as he appears in her paintings) called theatre, a form of existence in art that has more meaning than mere life.

She numbered the paintings and divided them into a tight structure of Acts, Scenes, and Chapters. When she was finished after two years of obsessive work, she entrusted the book with the words 'C'est toute ma vie' to the doctor of the French village where she lived. Her work survived the war. Its extraordinary artistic value was recognized by Willem Sandberg, who saw to it that the paintings came into the care of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Charlotte did not survive. She was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, where she died in 1943.

 

Taken from "Charlotte: Life or Theater?" An autobiographical play by Charlotte Salomon, translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz. Introduction by Judith Herzberg. Viking Press, 1981


 

An extract from the book:-

'THE PROPHET OF SONG' The Life and Work of Alfred Wolfsohn

by Paul Newham with Overture by Marita Günther

" Wolfsohn became Charlotte's first love - Indeed, he was her idol; she worshipped him as a father, a lover, a teacher and a spiritual emissary. She was a highly gifted painter and Wolfsohn spent many hours nurturing her belief in the significance of her life and in the worth and value of her paintings. In fact, it was only her art that saved her from an all, consuming melancholia.

But the third and most important process of that period occurred in response to Wolfsohn's recognition that the only way to further develop his investigation into the voice was by taking on his own students and experimenting with what he had learnt - that the voice was 'capable of expressing itself over a much wider range, emotionally as well as dynamically'.

During his time at the Salomon residence, Wolfsohn took on a number of students, some of whose voices he believed had been 'broken by years of wrong training' and others whom he described as having 'suffered mental damage'. Referring to this latter category Wolfsohn wrote:

" I discovered that you cannot make progress and succeed unless you are able to correct and alleviate the mental damage they suffered, to build up their belief in themselves and their own strength."

His development during that time brought him to formulate a fundamental link between the artistic process of singing and the psychological maturation of the individual. "

Paul Newham, London 1997


 

"Life or Theatre"

The title of the painting above is "Life or Theatre". It is also the title of Charlotte's collection of paintings and artistic works, numbering somewhere in the region of 1,325 in all! They are kept at the 'Jewish Historical Museum' in Amsterdam. "Life and Theater" is also the title of the exhibition that has been created out of this remarkable collection of paintings. The paintings have been correctly described as a 'story board' for a film script. They are in fact the story of her short life, she died at the age of 26! Nearly all the paintings have dialogue painted into them and often include suggestions for musical mood setting. If you manage to see the exhibition (which if you have the chance, you must not miss) you should be able to hire, for a modest sum, a portable CD-rom player, which will not only give you a translation from the German text in the paintings but it also plays the suggested music. The result is quite staggering. You, in effect, get the impression of what her play should or could have been: an incredibly moving story of the fight in this one individual for life AND theatre.

In 1992, a French TV documentary was made about Charlotte: "Vie ou Théâtre" . This is the best of the various attempts that have been made in telling her life story.

 

Paul Silber, Malérargues 2002

The following is an extract from a news article that appeared in the "International Herald Tribune" on October 5th 1992, as a leader to the exhibition of her paintings.

"The main part of "Life? Or Theater?" begins with Daberlohn's arrival on the scene to the tune of the Toreador's song from "Carmen.". A stretcher bearer in World War I, Wolfsohn developed a theory of sound based on the screams of the dying soldiers under whom he was trapped and which were beyond ordinary screams in volume and tone. A charismatic figure, he went to London in World War II and a group of his disciples still lives out his theories in a commune in southern France."

Mary Blume

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