After seeing artist Charlotte Salomon’s work in an exhibition before the first lockdown, So Mayer started to reflect on the evolution of Salomon’s innovative, word-strewn paintings. Here, they consider how Salomon’s work conjures and embodies a unique voice, a bold assertion of self that defies curatorial and art historical prejudices.
Content warning: This piece refers to and explores the impact of sexual abuse and suicide in the life and work of the artist.
I have an A2 poster on the wall close to my desk that says, in red serif 200 point caps:
CARE OF IT.
In between the lines are two sentences in sans serif sentence case in white, 24 point, that read:
As Nazi aggression escalated, the Berlin-born Jewish artist
Charlotte Salomon sensed the end was near. She wrapped over 800
of her paintings in brown paper and handed them to a friend with these words.
And then, right-aligned like a citation, beneath the final line of all caps, this sentence in italics:
– Charlotte died in Auschwitz at the age of 26.
I give you the details of the typography because they feel like they matter: they are designed to convey a voice, or two voices; to convey an urgency, or two urgencies. A whole life, and its interpretation.
Who is speaking here? For whom? The sans serif text is almost invisible in relation to the bold red caps, not least because I hate bright overhead lights and write in a small pool of 40W desk lamp enclosed by a calming/blurring shadowy half-darkness.
Which is to say: how close is the red voice, Salomon’s voice, not only to me as listener but to herself? Did she make her work in the equivalent of a small, tight pool of light so that some – maybe only she herself – could see it and others could not? And what does the supposedly objective, third-person voice of the historian and curator do when it interleaves itself into her speech – and (why) does it matter?
It’s been a year since I finally made myself go to the exhibition of some of those paintings – actually, there were nearly 1700 – at the Jewish Museum in London, the last exhibition I saw before lockdown: rushing to get to there before the museum closed that day; before the show closed that week.
As I arrive, flushed and reluctant and ready, a museum volunteer guide asked if I’d come to see Charlotte’s work; he could show it to me.
Did you know her personally? I ask, my voice cracking with anger; my back backing up and holding my lungs tightly, shrinking me into myself.
What do you mean? he asks me. And asks me repeatedly, in response to every I’m-in-public-so-I’m-being-polite-yet-firm attempt to rebuff him and distance myself, as he follows me around the exhibition asking intrusive questions. There are no other volunteers doing the same with any other visitors.
Beyond the obvious meaning (how dare you assume a familiarity that is absolutely, and well-documentedly, gendered – would you refer to Chagall as “Marc”? Or what I should have said was, “Fuck off and leave me alone”), what I meant by that question is shaped by the complex status of Salomon’s work and its reception: that is, of her voice and how it is heard; a status that felt or became more complex – or perhaps more complex to articulate – as I moved through this particular exhibition of it, twenty years after the first time I saw her work, differently, the time that the poster carries; the time in which it has changed, become familiar.
Publicly, that is, canonically; not as in, familiar-enough-to-be-comfortable to me.
For me, the paintings, like works of art across all media, carry an irreducible strangeness that is rooted in sharing with those other works – let’s call them experimental – a sui generis quality that startles, that refreshes itself on each encounter. And they insist on that irreducibility through what they, specifically, are, and what they are doing. Leben? oder Theater? the project is called.
How close is this voice to some irreducible sense of my self? Salomon asks. Don’t assume you, the viewer, can tell. It is always changing: retreating and exploding.
A young woman artist in a blue dress sits on a lighter blue stool at a grey metal desk with a pencil or brush in her hand, her head bent over what appears to be a self-portrait, so close that her long fringe almost touches the page.
‘What do you mean?’ is very much Salomon’s question: of herself, of the world, of what it means to be a self in the world. How do I make meaning as “you”, with “you”, when I am “you”d by you? Her work does not present an easy answer to this question; rather, it presents an uneasy answer, an unsettling response that reflects the question back on the viewer. What do you mean?
What I mean is: neglecting this charge of her work, the exhibition “Charlottes” Salomon insistently. It demands or avers a kind of personal knowledge of Salomon (rooted in and through an assumed conceptualisation of her secular Ashkenazi Jewishness, which the paintings hardly discuss), and/as at the same time disavows it. It depends on a kind of transparency that relates to claims that her work is directly autobiographical (a lazy framework often used to essentialise women’s work), and simultaneously denies her agency and authority over her own life and the shaping of its relation.
It claims to hear her voice by refusing to hear it in full, by shrinking it down and closing it off – managing it for the visitor even as it presents as overwhelming. By presenting it as overwhelming; that, in her too-much-ness, there is no way to hear her.
There were, after all, over 32,000 words to read in an exhibition in four small rooms; most of them Salomon’s, translated from German; some the curators’. Hers are clear, witty, dense, deep, informed, thrilling, melancholy, intuitive, expert, poetic, direct as they lead through three strongly-structured acts that play with the shape of opera.
The first act covers her childhood – or rather, the childhood of her alter-ego Charlotte Kann, who is also doubled by and doubling her aunt Charlotte, who killed herself long before Salomon’s birth and after whom she was named. It situates her as the daughter of an upper middle-class German Jewish Berlin family, telling the story from her parents meeting before her birth, through her mother’s suicide (which she was told at the time was influenza), to the arrival of her stepmother, an operatic singer.
The second act is about Charlotte Kann’s intense relationship with Paulinka Bimbam’s vocal tutor Amadeus Daberlohn, an itinerant musician who had been buried alive during his service in the trenches in World War I, which had caused him to develop or collect post-Nietzschean, semi-Freudian, Magic Mountain-y theories about the relationships between life, death, art, sex and history. The third act follows Charlotte Kann’s flight from Berlin to the South of France at the start of World War II, where she determines to analyse the history of female suicide in her maternal lineage as the Nazi death machine draws ever closer.
If you Google Salomon’s work, you find a disproportionate number of reproductions of her paintings of National Socialist rallies, which are present in the project but not centred. Salomon didn’t need to engage in dramatic foreshadowing of the devastating, unfolding impacts of Nazi policies: they were stark political realities that she did not need to spell out, because they were, in their moment, self-evident and all-encompassing. In a similar way, she puts little emphasis on describing or demonstrating her family’s Jewishness because it, too, was (and has been made, by the Nazis) self-evident and all-encompassing.
There’s a shift between acts one and two: she wrote most of her words in act one on transparencies that were intended to be overlaid over the painted pages; towards the end of the project, she wrote directly onto the paintings. The museum suggested this was because she/Nazi-occupied France ran out of transparent paper. It’s possible. Possibly she grew more confident, or more insistent, or it became more important for her voice to be present on the page as she addressed the encroaching presence of Nazism and its desire to eradicate her, particularly in the devastating third and final section/act of the book.
Devastating because Salomon shows herself, or the character based on her, moving towards coherence despite the terrors around her. Towards the end of the project, referring to the Jewish mystical-political concept of tikkun ha-olam, or repairing the world, she tries to describe the work going on inside her and on the page to her grandfather. She is recessed into the depths of the page, overshadowed by his dominance of the foreground, but the orthography of her words is clear, her sentence enfolding her, while his blurs, curves, obscures him, and finally crashes into the frame. She says:
‘You know, Grandpa, I have a feeling the whole world has to be put together again.’
‘Oh, go ahead and kill yourself and put an end to all this babble!’
What is the world that Salomon means? As her grandfather’s dismissive response indicates, she is speaking about her world and/in its interrelation to the social and political upheavals and tragedies that enclose but do not define it. The project’s narrative follows the arc of Salomon’s life, through which public history – defiantly secondary to it – winds.
Although Salomon’s history ends, as the poster states, with her murder in Auschwitz, the book, which she also described as a form of musical theatre, does not. Unlike almost all operas (there are references to arias and lieder throughout), it ends with the female protagonist defiantly alive. Not only that but also declaring, through the superposition of the text Leben? oder Theater? on her naked, sun-bronzed back, that she is the author of the work, not just its subject: that she crafted this incredible new form.
I love how the paper she holds could be read as transparent to the sea and to her skin, as well as painted by her hand with the sea and her skin. This is a project about transparency; about reaching for it, about using it to account for oneself, about how it allows for a merging of self and world.
The museum said that the original textual transparencies were not exhibited because they are too fragile, with printed text panels giving only their contents in translation. It’s possible.
It’s also possible that having Salomon’s handwriting present throughout, even in facsimile, would overwhelmingly make the case for just how much hers her work is; how it resists interpretation not by some kind of hermeticism that requires an expert’s intervention, but by its crafted and self-determined clarity, by the certainty of its voice. It is only when the painted-on text appears that you realise how much you have missed (it), how integral the orthography is to giving us her voice and the form as they co-create one another.
The final panel shows how the form, like a spoken voice, manifested from and through her body, although it is not commensurate with it. Its deep intimacy is integral to form, but is not its form. It’s her vocation, from vox, voice: her act of emitting or producing voice (OED), her calling-out that is also how she listens to being called in to the work of making.
Writing for the New Yorker, dancer Toni Bentley translates Salomon’s words on handing over the paintings, to her doctor and the witness at her belated attempt at a visa marriage, as “Keep these safe… They are my whole life.”
It’s the same, but it’s different. “They” speaks to the paintings’ – and the selves’ – multiplicity; in medieval English usage, the Latin vocatio is used to mean a group that is called together, an assembly or gathering. “They” calls attention to the incredible generativity of finishing over 1500 intensely original paintings plus their novella-worth of text, created in a space of just three years, holding in suspension the different Charlottes, carrying all the materials of both self and art.
They were made in a continuous burst of activity prescribed by Dr Moridis to stave off a potential breakdown after Salomon had been interned in Gurs, a Vichy-run concentration camp in the south of France. It was due to her father – a Berlin doctor – being interned in Sachsenhausen after Kristallnacht in 1938 that her parents had sent her to the south of France in 1939, believing she would be safe there with her maternal grandparents.
Keep them safe. As Bentley details, Salomon was not safe in Villefranche even before the Vichy regime was in place.
It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald [her grandfather], not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.”
… Strangely, there is only one image in Salomon’s vast output that alludes to her time in Gurs, and it does not focus on the camp at all. In the painting, Salomon shows herself crouched on the floor of a crowded train car with her grandfather, “en route from a little town in the Pyrenees” – Gurs – “to Nice.” “I’d rather have ten more nights like this than a single one alone with him,” the text on the gouache reads. Elsewhere in “Life? or Theatre?,” Salomon illustrates her grandfather’s requests to share “a bed with me,” and his predatorial reasoning: “I’m in favor of what’s natural.”
Strangely, there is only one brief mention of the abuse in the Jewish Museum exhibition, obscured by the word “alleged.” At no other point did the exhibition question any aspect of Salomon’s text.
Bentley’s article caused a sensation on its publication in 2017. Drawing on a new 2015 French edition of Salomon’s book Leben? oder Theater? that includes a 19-page letter she wrote detailing her murder of her grandfather and its rationale, Bentley’s was the first account in English to take seriously what Salomon makes perfectly evident in her paintings: that her grandfather was sexually abusing her, and had been since she was a child.
Look back at the painting of the adult Charlotte Kann telling her grandfather she has a feeling the whole world needs to be put back together. Look at the bright red traces that run down Charlotte Kann’s leg, bleeding into – or out from – her grandfather’s gaslighting words.
Her main American biographer Mary Felstiner denied the abuse and the murder. This is a condensed version of the almost incomprehensible response to Bentley’s article that she published on a Stanford University blog:
Neither inside or outside these paintings is there any direct evidence of either murder or abuse… Personally, I tend to believe Charlotte Salomon wanted to put down her grandfather, but the act, if actual, was pressured by her historical context in 1943, and it’s not known if she succeeded in her fantasy or attempt. As for sexual abuse, she did paint one scene of attempted sexual abuse – by an unknown refugee on the road – so I am reluctant to accuse her grandfather without any direct word from the artist, either in an artwork that reveals other highly-charged family secrets, or in a “letter” revealing a more shameful and dangerous “confession.”
Felstiner’s recursive account, which is unevidenced (“personally, I tend to believe”), misinterprets Salomon’s painting: it details her grandfather, not an unknown refugee, denying her requests for separate beds at an inn on their route back from Gurs to Villefranche. She also fails to account for a painting that makes clear reference to an assault in childhood in her grandparents’ house, immediately after her mother’s suicide.
Beyond that (or through that), it misinterprets the way in which sexual abuse and its traumatic effects are, or can be, evidenced. You can interview someone’s school friends all you want, but they cannot bear witness to something that could not be spoken, even to oneself.
Felstiner’s denial, which folds in on itself over claims of evidence and coded references to Salomon’s “historical community,” has a history.
That is, Salomon is writing back to Sigmund Freud. Consciously, I infer, Salomon – an educated middle-class Berliner, daughter of a practising doctor whose step-mother introduced her to an artistic milieu – is addressing not only Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, but also Herr Doktor Sigmund Freud.
Specifically, to “seduction theory,” his face-saving denial of the epidemic of familial sexual abuse that he confronted and documented early in his career. Initially he gave credit to the verbal, and often physical, evidence presented when he encouraged his young women patients (mostly Jewish) to delve into their memories to explain why they were so persistently (even defiantly) unwell without apparent somatic cause. Then he withdrew his validation, as Jeffrey Masson recounts exhaustively in his book The Assault on Truth.
There’s a short version as to why that particularly resonates for me: that to pursue his case would have created – in a phrase I heard a million times as a child, forgot, and then re-encountered recently in relation to discussions of the Jews who served in Trump’s administration and how to account for them – a shande fur di goyim, a shame in front of non-Jews, aka washing the community’s dirty linen in public.
In the climate of rising anti-Semitism that Freud faced in Vienna, psychoanalysis itself was seized on as a “Jewish” science describing “Jewish” neuroses, even as its base of practitioners and patients expanded. Those claims were shadowed by the still-persistent anti-Semitic slur, recurring on contemporary reddit threads and online message boards, that the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish law endorses father-daughter incest.
Even (or especially) in the face of such threats, it was a shande that Freud acted out of fear, rather than arguing that sexual abuse was (and is) endemic under cisheteropatriarchy, and not particular to the community he had the most access to. Repressing his own knowledge and betraying his patients, Freud coined “seduction theory,” the idea that she’s always asking for it, and if not actually asking, then imagining (asking for) it.
A theory that – alongside eugenics – still finds willing and eager supporters across the contemporary political, medical and judicial systems, to say nothing of mainstream literary and cinematic culture.
There’s no question that Salomon is pushing back against the gap that seduction theory created in the psychoanalytic case study, one of the major non-fiction forms of her day, by undertaking her own version. She worked without seeking recourse to a psychoanalyst, but was clearly informed by psychoanalysis.
Perhaps she knew, or knew of, the Berlin-based Jewish feminist activist Bertha Pappenheim – Pappenheim left Vienna and her pseudonym Anna O., under which she was the first psychoanalytic patient and should be seen as the co-author of the “talking cure”, which she called “chimney-sweeping”. Pappenheim was the first of many women drawn to psychoanalysis and damaged by psychoanalysts (Freud took over her treatment after his colleague impregnated her; the question of consent is unclear as we only have Joseph Breuer’s account), one of many to develop crucial ideas only to see them appropriated, perverted and discarded in psychoanalysis’s quest for respectability and institutionalisation.
Leben? oder Theater? is a feminist pushback against and through psychoanalysis, reworking it on its own terms: because it is reflexive and first-person (and written by a woman); because of its multimodal form; because of its political and historical situating of the family’s story; and because it diagnoses not transgenerational hysteria, but as Bentley argues plausibly, something far less to do with eugenicist ideas of heredity: transgenerational sexual abuse, seeing that her mother and grandmother were both subject to her grandfather’s violence.
The formation of Salomon’s voice is itself evidence of the abuse. The extraordinary ways she had to find to speak speaks of the pressure that formed a voice that would be able to articulate the inarticulable. There is evidence of how she found that voice, and why she had to.
Multiple iterations of Charlotte Kann, wearing a blue swimsuit, work on a sketch of a tree overhanging the sea on the south coast of France. She appears older and taller in each image from left to right, and the sketch on each figure’s paper also develops from left to right. Figures wearing skirts promenade in front of her along the shore, as the sun sets in a fiery wave to the right of the image. Written in the sky in red capital lettering is the German word Nachwort, meaning Afterword.
There is evidence inside the paintings – look back at those red traces, look forward to the sunset – and evidence outside the paintings in the letter she wrote (but could not send) (but kept with her artwork) (but which her family suppressed). The evidence is that she painted and she wrote, as she did: not only to describe herself, her changing, learning self, but through and with a kaleidoscopic cultural moment.
Salomon called her project Leben? oder Theater? because she is well aware that she is constructing a text and not confessing herself, and constructing it along Brechtian lines. It’s not so much that she wants us to know her personally (“Charlotte”), as that she wants to know herself in order to be able to craft her narrative in a highly-stylised way. That is: just because it bears witness does not mean it is a confession, an idea that implies that Salomon is speaking in order to be both cured and absolved; cured and absolved, possibly, of her fantasy that she is an artist.
Instead, let’s call the project what it is: a dazzlingly ambitious and rigorously honest Kunstlerroman à clef, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, one who shows herself as perfectly capable of channelling, say Vincent Van Gogh, as she does when showing herself painting a sunflower as an art student, but who is not defined by that apprenticeship; look how she puts Van Gogh’s chair and books and sunflower next to the child with a ball reminiscent of Mary Cassatt.
As no one denied James Joyce’s novel does, Salomon’s project invents its own multiart form to account for the multiart, cross-temporal formation of the self. Here, disciplined artistic practice and its thinking-through becomes a revision of paternalistic psychoanalysis. Look, says Salomon, this work offers a way of both articulating being an abuse survivor, and refusing to centre the abuser and the multiple, complex effects of the abuse in her identity.
She pushes back against the mainstreaming of psychoanalysis and its hang-ups, its appropriation of young Jewish women’s voices against themselves, by driving home the central truth it erased and the method by which it had found it. She appropriates the valuable diagnostic form of the narrative case study for herself – and/but she brings it together with the myriad explosively Expressionist artforms of her adolescence in Berlin, themselves often non-linear, often documenting their own process and emergence: kabarett, theatre, film, Dadaism, Neue Sachlichkeit photography and painting, political posters and newspaper cartoons, Bauhaus graphic design with its text/image juxtapositions, memoiristic philosophical writing like Walter Benjamin’s, Käthe Kollwitz’s woodcuts…
What a rush. Salomon simultaneously, with mutual reinforcement, stakes her claim to the entire whirl of Modernist visual arts and print culture surrounding her; and to the excoriating truth she uncovers. Like the artists of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), she proposes that it is an intervention into the verbal-visual field – into how we see, how we read, how we understand languages and the observable world – that can best do the work of not only revealing the unconscious, but of generating action from that work of revelation.
Replacing the angels of Jacob’s Ladder with her own mother ascending to Heaven, Salomon claims revelation for herself; for her self as her matrilineage, mingling her Jewish and artistic heritages while also depatriarchalising them. Depicting God is forbidden by the Ten Commandments: Salomon shows him human-sized, part of a gathering calling her mother to heaven; a vocatio to which she, too, belongs.
In her urgent determination toward – in Judith Butler’s sense – giving an account of herself, Salomon invents a visual language; and also, the way in which that language (in Butler’s sense again) is performative, in which it does. It does bodies; mindbodies, really. It shows how they – we – are made up out of the cultural texts and practices and images that surround us, and how working with and in them is an action that then also acts on our bodies.
While sharing with the sound cinema of her era a determination to work towards a complete art form, it’s far better than those early, halting attempts at interleaving dense, significant speech with observation of gestural body language, through those transparent overlays and beyond. The tenderness of Salomon’s attention to arrangements of limbs, to the nuances of gestures, read second-by-second, appears most clearly on the pages where dozens of Daberlohns are captured as if on a contact sheet, or in strip animation cels.
Sixteen iterations of Daberlohn are distributed over seven lines, lying on his back, his endless stream of words written in beneath him. The colour of his body changes from red midday sun through sunset shades to twilight moving down the page, and he turns his head towards the artist / listener / observer, and – back to his own thoughts – away.
With each iteration of Daberlohn it feels as if Salomon is re-learning how to be a human mindbody; yes, sure, through his grandiose heroic theories about how to come back to life after you’ve been buried alive. But really, through her micro-muscular observations of his face and body as he relates them. The voice of the body, and the body of the voice: has that ever been so well documented and thought-through, not just represented but realised in its agency?
It matters that Daberlohn (based on Alfred Wolfsohn) was a voice teacher; that he taught women, in particular, how to sing, how to use their embodied voices to be heard – and that he taught them to be heard by performing the aesthetically-murdered women of the opera canon. It also matters that Salomon depicts him trying sexual experiments with Charlotte Kann, whom the text describes as cold and unresponsive, although not non-consenting.
It is to Wolfsohn that Salomon addresses the letter (which she never sends), written while her grandfather’s body absorbs the Veronal omelette (her words) that she made for him: a confession, or a threat. She does, after all, introduce Daberlohn with José’s theme from Carmen, the song of a femicidal man. In addressing the letter to him there is, at the very least, an intimation that Wolfsohn knew her history of abuse, that he would – in multiple senses – understand.
It’s complicated, what Kann feels for Daberlohn: what she’s longing for in longing for this unobtainable, otherwise-engaged, self-obsessed older man who is, it seems, happy to have sex with her on the beach, but avoids contact with her for weeks or months. Being assigned female at birth in Eurowestern culture has meant, for a couple of hundred years, being assigned loving – or rather, performing the need to be loved – as your only vocation. Making yourself (a[vaila]ble to be) held rather than making yourself heard. Salomon knows this is the grounds of opera, a form that has shaped her family life. Leben? oder Theater?
In Act III, Kann leaves Berlin. At its end, she leaves her grandfather, and it is Salomon the artist who emerges from Kann’s lungs, as the dried-blood inscription of her (the artist’s) voice on her (the character’s) skin. She has learned something from Daberlohn, although perhaps not the kind of Romantic performance/philosophy grand narrative he endorsed.
Better to say that, having given so much of herself to him, she takes something from him, a way of being (heard): something she has made for herself through all the thousands of images she has made of his body, whose golden-blue colours reappear in her final image of herself.
This is vocation, Salomon is showing-telling-teaching-learning-giving, to herself and – whether she intended to or not – us. This is how life calls to you, as theatre; this scintillating, excruciating brilliance of (finding ways of) being seen and heard, the unending ocean of it; the whole life.
About So Mayer
So Mayer is the author of A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press, 2020), jacked a kaddish (Litmus, 2018), Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and (O) (Arc, 2015). They contributed an essay in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Allen & Unwin, 2018) and the introduction to Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás (Ignota, 2018). So is a bookseller at Burley Fisher, a curator with queer feminist film collective Club des Femmes, and co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the film industry. Follow So on Twitter @Such_Mayer