The Legacy of Alfred Wolfsohn
by Sheila Braggins
Illustrations of Charlotte's work are available on the CD rom which can be bought from www.jhm.nl
I think it is true to say that none of us would be sitting here at Malerargues today if it were not for Alfred Wolfsohn - nor would we be experiencing the creative results of his ideas if his legacy had not been passed on in two different ways: one in art and the other in voice work – but strangely, both linked to “theatre” in the title of their work.
The two propagators of his work were both pupils of his, Charlotte Salomon, an art student, in Berlin and Roy Hart, a student of voice, in London.
Charlotte, in the South of France, after failing to save her grandmother from committing suicide in 1940, saved herself from doing likewise by remembering AW’s creative philosophy. Instead of Death she chose Life, and made over 1300 paintings, an autobiography of her life which she entitled “Life? or Theatre?”3.
Roy Hart was AW’s most famous voice pupil. He demonstrated AW’s philosophy about the voice while AW was still alive, giving demonstrations and lectures, and then after AW’s death in 1962 he took on his teaching-mantle and eventually founded the “Roy Hart Theatre”.
This morning I shall be giving you AW’s ideas about Charlotte, taken from two of his unpublished manuscripts, one is "Orpheus or the Way to a Mask" and the other "The Bridge".
Is there anyone here who does not know the history of AW?........
Inability to sing……voice
One small part of his history I find interesting. When he left school in 1914 he started to read Law at University. In his MS Orpheus he describes a great friendship he had with an old school friend who was also studying law with him. He says, and I quote: “We did not know our destinies but we dreamed about a future centred around art. He painted and I gave my heart and soul to music” . So, amazingly, here already the two parts of what would be his legacy were beginning to develop.
He soon after this conscripted for the army in the 1914/18 War - and at the end of those terrible four years of war he was suffering from what was then known as shell shock, a huge psychological disturbance. His trauma and suffering related to two main sources:
1. His loss of faith in his Jewish God who allowed the horrors of war, even allowing his great university friend to be killed.
2. He could not get over a destroying feeling of guilt for not going to help an injured comrade who called out to him.
The attempt to solve each of these traumas in a strange way 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 strove to help others, in fact he says that all his work was bound up with the need to help other people, almost to an idiotic degree. In both Orpheus and The Bridge he speaks about his Saviour Complex – which I shall speak about later in relation to Lotte.
A large stepping stone in his journey came when he went to Italy to recuperate after the war. There he became absorbed in the art of that country. So the artist and his work became an ongoing study as he attempted to understand and analyse the dream behind the artist’s creation.
It was at this point, in the atmosphere of artistic creativity, that he decided he wanted to be a singer – so art and music meet once again. I think we all know how, after receiving singing lessons from various teachers, his voice did not improve and he realised it was his own problem, not the fault of the teachers. So his ideas about the Human Voice developed, the Human Voice as apposed to the male or female voice with their limited gender classification, soprano, contralto, tenor or bass. His ideas linked with Jung’s concept of the anima and animus figures contained within each person.
So, from his first love of music his ideas broadened into the concept of the unchained human voice, able to express music with a freedom of expression previously unimagined. To arrive at this ability he felt it was essential for each person to “know oneself” and to understand the motives behind all our actions, to free the psychological inhibitions that are imposed on self-expression.
In Orpheus, which hopefully will be published soon with the help of Jay, he describes every aspect of his philosophy, relating it constantly to the human being, to his voice, to his art and to his soul. He based the title of his 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, we all have to descend into the depths of oneself before we can ascend into the heights.
Until one has experienced these depths it is difficult to reach the heights. This applies particularly to the voice, but if one examines the life of artists one can learn how so many artistic works rise from the depths of despair into the light of creation. He had experienced death and he now had to become familiar with life and he realised that what matters is not whether life loves us, but that we love life1.
He was fascinated by dream. He believed that dream came out of the deepest unconscious with out censorship of consciousness and so every artistic creation is the manifestation of the artists dream, whether it be in science, music, art, literature - or film - which at that time was the newest art form. He was particularly excited by it, he felt it gave the artist unlimited scope for portraying all his artistry – he this theatre he can use music, the voice, the portrayal of myth and fantasy and - best of all, with the use of montage he could portray a huge dream-like imagination. The almost magical change from one scene to another, often superimposed over the top, of each other, just as we often experience in dream. So montage portrays the natural phenomena of dream, and it provides the most important advantage of film over theatre or opera. So I am gong to jump ahead to show you two paintings of Charlotte from Life? or Theatre?” which, had he lived long enough, he would have been very excited to see the way she depicts montage in these two gouaches (4175 & 4179) .
I also want to give you a quote from Orpheus where he says “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 wonder if he would change his views about this in relation to Lotte’s art – would he feel that here in her art, life does flow?
So in Germany in the early 1930s when he started to work with singers who had lost their voices or people who had always wanted to sing but felt they could not do so – he also started to help some young people who were having difficulty in expressing themselves in other forms. One of these was Charlotte Salomon.
He met her in this way: at that time Jewish people were denied work by Nazi policy, so to help him to find pupils, he was introduced to Paula Lindberg a famous singer and well known figure in the Berlin Jewish community. She would be able to introduce AW to possible pupils. She was the second wife of Professor Albert Salomon, Charlotte’s father. Charlotte’s mother committed suicide when Charlotte was nine years old, but Charlotte was told that she died of influenza.
AW became a close friend of the Salomon family and singing teacher of Paula. He felt that Charlotte was a withdrawn, often unhappy young girl who had a complicated love/hate relationship with her step-mother and little faith in her own ability. So he talked with her from 1936 to 1939, trying to encourage her to believe in herself and to express herself through her art.
In 1939 he escaped from Germany and came to England. He joined the British Army and fought in France until the time of Dunkirk when he was invalided out of the forces. In 1946 he started to teach singing in England, having a group of young voices to work with for the first time. Roy Hart and I both became pupils of his in 1947. At that time AW worked with each pupil individually, encouraging the ability to extend the voice and thus the personality through the extension of range and dynamics. He worked with us on understanding dream and of being aware of ourselves and our emotions. This is what Roy took over when AW died, gradually moving it more to his special art form of theatre.
In 1946 AW started to write his second manuscript The Bridge. . It grew out of a correspondence started by Marianne Van der Linden soon after the war ended. She married a German soldier and after the war they divorced and she married a Dutch man, but they lived in France. Hearing that AW was still alive she wrote to him explaining that she would like to have contact again but she would understand if he did not want to write to her because of what had happened during the war. He replied and he finally used their letters to each other to begin his new book.
1957 AW went to Amsterdam to see Charlotte’s father and Paula. He had learnt about her death in Auschwitz but at that time no one knew anything about her painting of Life? or Theatre? Her work was still undiscovered.
In The Bridge, Marianne’s letters are almost entirely about herself, and AW, typically, uses his knowledge of the two young women by describing Charlotte’s problems in order to help Marianne understand herself. They were alike in many ways but in one way very different. He says that when he spoke with Charlotte in Berlin he felt he was talking to a block of rubber, he felt he made no impression at all upon her. He found it difficult to make close contact with her. She was extraordinarily taciturn and was unable to break through and emerge from the barrier she had built around herself. He felt compelled to attack this barrier but when he talked to her, trying to break down the wall she had erected around herself, she would gaze at him with such a challenging look which spurred him on to even greater activity, forcing him to play the clown. When he was with her he always felt he had to bring her closer to reality, there was such an air of unreality about her.
In The Bridge after describing how difficult he found Lotte he displays his need to help people and 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? I comfort myself with the thought of my favourite Michelangelo painting of God the Father breathing the soul into Adam. Here a similar process occurs.
In a book written by Christine Fischer Defoy, Barbara, an art student friend of Charlotte, describes Charlotte in a way which corroborates AW’s ideas about her character. She says of Charlotte: “She always walked around like a gloomy November day – that was Lotte. She always wore grey, she had a kind of salt–and–pepper- coat, grey and dark grey…..I found Lotte both old and childish at the same time, but rarely really young.”
In The Bridge he writes about several of Charlotte’s paintings made while he was still in Berlin. I would like to show four of them to you as they depict his analysis of her.
The first is the Birch Tree. He felt that this tree represented the intensity, determination and expression of her personality. In fact, her self portrait. He was struck by the helpless and awkward way in which the trunk stands on the ground. It appears to have no roots, nothing with which to hold on…. It is frighteningly ready to fall. “perhaps this impression is increased by the low hanging branches on the right which add a feeling of heaviness. Only when I look up high into the tree top do I see a determination not to give in but to take up the fight against destruction”…. A yellow sometimes changing to a delicate green shimmers through the branches and there is a little bit of blue!” Unfortunately we have not got this in colour and can only imagine it.
Samatha Edwards' "birch tree" inspired by Charlotte's drawing
The second is the Prophet. For him, the deepest essence of the young person Lotte is embodied in her presentation of the young saint. The transformation of the youth in the sketch to the older prophet in the etching points to the fact that she took great pains to hide her inner-most feelings. A girl who was so decidedly female had to be wary of exposing her male side. So she does not show a young female saint. AW at first wondered if it was influenced by her relationship to him but he thinks not, except that in the sketch both he and The Prophet have a thickening on the left wrist but the etching of the older man he thinks is more related to a doctor and conductor who was a close friend of Paula Lindberg who played a decisive role in Lotte’s life.
The two paintings that are particularly relevant here are Death and the Maiden and The Embrace. They are relevant not only in relation to Charlotte at that time but also to AW’s feelings about death. In Life? or Theatre?, (4531), Charlotte quotes him as saying “…I love life and affirm it threefold. In order to love life completely one must embrace life and comprehend its other side …death”. This is an almost direct quote from Orpheus which we know that she read.
If we look now at Death and the Maiden. In Orpheus AW says that Charlotte portrays a Death who is almost human. The painting portrays a yearning for an embrace, even with death, a wish for someone to put his arms about you. …He says: “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.
In The Bridge, which of course Charlotte did not read, he describes how he told Charlotte that with this painting she had come to the end of a particular road and she should now perhaps 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. The painting 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 and the directness of presentation. The first picture (D & M again) showed a lack of sensuality, the blending of figures into each other, no earthliness, only chastity and nobility of expression. The second (Embrace) was the entwining of bodies, a strong earthliness, unrestrained abandonment and a predominant sensuality, with almost an element of lust. He was 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. 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.
Samatha Edwards' very accurate drawing of Charlotte's "The Embrace"
Later in The Bridge he speaks most movingly about Lotte’s final encounter with death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, a very different death from that of her portrayal.
He knew nothing about Life? or Theatre? until in 1961 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.
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, for example Marita Gunther who had a huge range, both high and low, but also the most well known being Jill and Jenny Johnson, sisters who proved his ideas not only about range but also about artistic expression, and Roy Hart who took the voice into previously unheard of realms. However, with universal 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, his ideas were too far seeing and too challenging.
Roy, who had been teaching for some years before AW died, the only one of his pupils yet advanced enough to do so, immediately took on the mantel of his work finally forming his own theatre of the voice that eventually moved to Malerargues, France.
So, as you can see, Alfred Wolfsohn’s ideas might well have died with him in 1962 but for two people: Charlotte Salomon and Roy Hart. The continuation of this legacy is what this celebration is all about. AW 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. Although AW does not speak about theatre a great deal in his writing but 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?
Writings about Alfred Wolfsohn index page
Seminar index page