Showing posts with label Charlotte Salomon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charlotte Salomon. Show all posts

09 August 2021

Charlotte Salomon, Her Book, Her Mystery

I have always been fond of people who accomplish things they are not supposed to be able to do. Jacob Lawrence was not a historian but that didn't stop him from painting a history of the Great Migration and along the way, reviving history painting, which, incidentally, was not supposed to be done in water based paints, either.

So I was intrigued by the case of Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered, unknown to the art world, in 1943 at Auschwitz. Hiding in exile in the south of France, she had deposited her major work, Lieben? oder Theater? ( Life? or Theater?) with a supporter a few months before her arrest by the Gestapo. 

The work, comprising 769 gouaches ( \out of a total of around 1000 done between late 1940 and early 1942) and including a number of painted texts and textual overlays on transparent paper, survived. The images are now available at, thanks to the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam that owns the collection.

I came across this remarkable work via a piece in the New York Times which led me to the immense Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock, a scholarly work with some heavy theorizing but also many insights and, most important from my point of view, an excellent selection of Salomon's work.

Very nice, you're probably thinking, but how is that even remotely relevant to SleuthSayers. Here's the interesting bit. Just as Jacob Lawrence had to invent or reinvent a form to tell the history of his people, Salomon, or CS as she signed her paintings, used her art to tell what wasn't supposed to be told in a way that wasn't supposed to work.

Lieben? oder Theater? is in part a family history, told as a painted novel with fictionalized characters, including Charlotte Kann, a stand-in for its creator. The family history is grim – and not just because it spans the Great War and the rise of the Nazis. The work opens with the depiction of a young woman, Charlotte Kann's aunt, who flees her home in the middle of the night and drowns herself in one of Berlin's lakes.

Female suicide becomes a leitmotif of the work as the aunt is followed in death by her sister (Charlotte's mother) and later her mother (Charlotte's maternal grandmother). Crime writers with their suspicious minds will no doubt detect the reasons for these deaths ahead of the careful academics. 

The middle section of the work concerns Charlotte, inheritor of suicidal tendencies – or a person reacting to the forces that drove the others to their deaths. She is saved by the philosophy of a traumatized war veteran, who, unfortunately, is really in love with her glamorous opera singer stepmother. The triangular relationship plays out against the rise of the Nazis, whose rallies and pogroms are depicted in vigorous paintings.

The work ends with all safety lost in the previous sanctuary of Nice, France. Her grandmother dead, Charlotte and her grandfather are arrested and released to a precarious temporary freedom, which she paints to quite devastating effect. 

What brings this immense, eccentric, and remarkable work into the mystery orbit, however, has been the recovery of the postscript to the work. Like the texts in Lieben? oder Theater? this was originally done in painted letters. But part of the document only exists now in typescript, the original having been lost or more likely destroyed by her surviving family,  since it appears to be a confession that the writer murdered the grandfather by poison.

Around this there are doubts. The death certificate for Salomon's grandfather lists heart attack as the cause. The postscript claims he was poisoned by Veranol, incidentally the same drug Freud gave his daughter when she was endangered by the Gestapo. Charlotte Salomon's grandfather was a physician, as was her father. The drug was certainly available. 

The fascinating question is what precisely was this postscript. A confession by the historical figure Charlotte Salomon, who I suspect would have had her reasons for homicide? Or a confession by Charlotte Kann, the lead character in the painted novel/memoir? Or a wish in place of act by either the character or her creator?

We are unlikely to know the truth. What we do know is that even the substance of the book, minus the postscript, was explosive. One only has to read Freud's accounts of  'hysterical women' and delusional girls to see how firmly the professional class of the times closed ranks when anything threatened male dominance and bourgeois respectability. Without professional standing or specialized education, Salomon had to use her art for her indictment.

In exile, short of supplies (CS reused the backs of rejected paintings), burdened by a lethal family history, and living in most dangerous times, Salomon created a document of great complexity and sophistication out of a modest medium and such paper as she could acquire. 

Denied training as a painter (unfeminine) she was channeled as a student into the more acceptable illustration. Ironically, this course was perhaps her artistic salvation, because it gave her the tools to incorporate the new ways of looking at narrative available via the movies and comic strips into her work as well as a mastery of the water -based medium. 

The earlier paintings tend to be multi-scene like comics or Renaissance works. The later ones become more expressionistic, simpler and more powerful, under the pressure of intense lived emotion and the terror of the inevitable that arrived when she was 26 and newly married.

Although as Pollock notes Salomon was healthy, blonde, German speaking and a skilled draftsperson, she was killed on arrival because she was pregnant. The young woman haunted by deaths and tempted by suicide died when she had the most reason to live.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.