Monday, July 07, 2014

'Life? or Theater?' Paints a Moving Picture of Charlotte Salomon -- Museum Exhibit Review

Museum Exhibition Review

Charlotte Salomon
Life? or Theater?
an exhibit of semi-autobiographical paintings,
accompanied by captions
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Skokie
Thru September 21

On Sunday, July 6, which was sadly, by sheer coincidence, the 75th anniversary of the last Jewish enterprises in Germany being closed and the 72nd anniversary of Anne Frank and her family going into hiding, I visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, my hometown and a village in which many Holocaust survivors would rebuild their lives--and eventually the museum devoted to disallowing anyone to forget.

I spent a bit of time in the Permanent Collection--I wish I had time for a docent/survivor-led tour, which seemed superlative when I stumbled upon it later--but having seen it on multiple occasions, I devoted the bulk of this visit to the museum's new Special Exhibit about Charlotte Salomon, who somewhat akin to Anne Frank, was a young woman who left behind a heartrending work of self-expression before dying in a Nazi concentration camp.

Born in 1917, Salomon was a visual artist who attended art school in her hometown of Berlin at a time when German universities were restricting their Jewish student quota to 1.5% of the student body. She studied painting there for two years and won a prize, but left when Nazi anti-semitism made it too dangerous.

After Kristallnacht, with her father and step-mother she left Germany. While they wound up in the Netherlands, Charlotte lived in the south of France, initially with her grandparents on the estate of a wealthy American named Ottilie Moore, but eventually by herself in a hotel (as Moore, who treated Charlotte well, had moved back to the U.S.)

It was there, around the turn of 1940 into 1941 that Charlotte Salomon began painting over 1,300 gouache (opaque watercolor) artworks for a semi-autobiographical series--accompanied by captions and suggested musical cues--entitled Life? or Theater? A Play With Music.

This somewhat fantastical operetta of her life to that point--which tragically included the suicide of several female family members, including her mother who died when Charlotte was 9, explained to her as due to influenza with the truth revealed only after her grandmother took her life in late 1939--was created with Salomon stating that she was driven by "the question: Whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual."

Awe-inspiringly, she opted for the latter, and would subsequently find love, get married and become pregnant, only to horrifically be discovered by the Nazis, sent to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival (her husband and unborn child also perished in the Holocaust).

Shortly before her death, with Nazis closing in, she had entrusted Life? or Theater? to a friend, saying:
"Keep this safe. It is my whole life."
After the war, the friend would give the series to Ottilie Moore, who had returned to France and to whom Charlotte had dedicated her deeply personal masterwork.

When Charlotte's surviving parents--her father, Albert, a surgeon, had re-married in her teen years to a singer named Paula Lindberg--came to the south of France looking for traces of their daughter, Moore was able to share Charlotte's astonishing work with them.

It was subsequently entrusted to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, who organized the exhibit of nearly 300 original Life? or Theater? paintings that is now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

The complete Life? or Theater? collection can be viewed on the Amsterdam museum's website--the images I've included, all seen in Skokie, come from there--but is definitely worthwhile for anyone able to get to the Illinois Holocaust Museum before September 21. (Visitors should allot at least an hour to fully view and read through the Salomon exhibit, and that or more for the permanent collection and other exhibits if not previously seen.)

Before telling you a bit more about the exhibit itself, I felt it necessary to summarize its back story, as Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theater? largely defies a sound-bite description.

It is not quite what it may seem, and is formidably a case of "The whole being greater than the sum of its parts."

Although the exhibition consists of a collection of paintings by an artist whose work--according to Wikipedia--impressed Marc Chagall, it is not really an art exhibition analogous to the Art Institute of Chicago's Magritte show (which I recently reviewed) or the fine Kandinsky retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Museum (which should be the subject of my next post).

With her life cruelly cut short at age 26, and Life? or Theater? completed a few years earlier, Salomon's art does not aesthetically reach the heights of legendary painters whose works adorn top art museums.

Strictly from a visual standpoint, I felt her most adroit and compelling works were largely self-portraits, although her pieces depicting numerous people felt a bit similar--if more crudely drawn--to some by Maurice Prendergast.

But even if all of the gouaches may not individually be described as brilliant works of art, what can be is the series itself--and the simple fact that Salomon created it, demonstrating great gumption and productivity under considerable duress.

While fully appreciating why this is a wonderful exhibit for the Holocaust Museum to present, also a bit surprising in viewing it was how little of Salomon's extensive output--although the exhibition includes about 1/4 of her total Life? or Theater? paintings, the sequence of events in Salomon's somewhat fictionalized life story is fully represented--deals directly with the Holocaust, Hitler, Nazis, Jews, hiding or even desolation.

Part of this is due to the work being created prior to her life turning most dire, or any awareness of Nazi atrocities beyond their dissipating the Jews out of Germany.

Through her images, words--initially created on overlays, but subsequently within the artworks themselves; in the exhibit, English captions accompany all the paintings--and accompanying musical recommendations, Salomon chronicles her parents meeting, her own birth, her mother's death, her father's new wife, a voice teacher for her stepmother with whom Charlotte was smitten, going to live with her grandparents in France, her grandmother's suicide and the deferred revelation about how her mom and other relatives died.

The rise of Nazism is referenced only briefly, and I believe just a single swastika is shown.

Although Charlotte Salomon faced numerous tragedies and grave difficulties throughout her short life, and would die horrifically and needlessly like 6 million other Jews and a nearly equally-appalling number of non-Jews, what makes Life? or Theater? most heartbreaking isn't its storyline itself, but how and why any chance for a sequel was precluded.

Many viewers will likely be most intrigued by Charlotte's extended depiction of a wistful, then developing, romance with her stepmother's vocal coach--Amadeus Daberlohn in keeping with the series' use of fictionalized names; Alfred Wolfsohn in real-life. (Charlotte Salomon is Charlotte Kann within the artwork.)

Per one of the few extemporaneous notes the exhibit includes among the paintings, "It is unclear if Wolfsohn and Salomon actually had a love affair or if it was all imagined. Regardless, Wolfsohn encourages Salomon in her artistic pursuits."

According to Wikipedia, the term "graphic novel" was first used in 1964 and only became a prevalent term for long-form comic books after 1978.

While Life? or Theater? is far from precisely analogous, particularly to loop in young visitors who were largely absent on Sunday but who would likely identify with Charlotte's thoughts, obsessions and travails, perhaps the Illinois Holocaust Museum should--in apt venues--promote this unique exhibit as:
A pioneering graphic novel of astonishingly prolific, imaginative and tragic proportions. 
But however how one wants to see Life? or Theater?--as an art exhibition, a 2-dimensional operetta, a collection of semi-autobiographical storyboards Charlotte Salomon created to maintain her sanity, a graphic novel or simply the lasting legacy of a remarkable young woman, symbolic of history's most horrific event--the point is that it very much merits being seen.  

1 comment:

Ken said...

Thanks so much for this post! Yet again you keep me apprised of a significant cultural event I had no idea that Charlotte even existed and now I'm truly humbled to have learned of her life and work. Her ability to produce such beautiful work in the face of catastrophe was truly brave and inspiring. I also applaud the Holocaust Museum for showcasing such efforts, although I wasn't aware of it until reading your post. I'll be sure to visit this exhibit. Thanks again!