Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory

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In his monumental work, Weimar in Exile, Jean-Michel Palmier powerfully evokes the huge sense of loss, displacement and trauma that artists, writers and intellectuals faced when they were forced into exile from Nazi Germany as the fascist regime tightened its grip and control of the German state during the 1930s and then across Europe with the onset of war and occupation.

Both Palmier and Griselda Pollock quite rightly quote Hannah Arendt at length: “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we were of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of actions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentrations camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives”.

Many who had been “someone” in the exhilarating cultural whirlpool that marked the Weimar years, as the creative forces unleashed by the revolutionary overthrow of the Kaiser came into conflict with those who wished to crush the workers’ movement, now found themselves outsiders and “no-bodies”.

Others, still struggling to cope with the harsh realities of exile, used every opportunity they could to raise the threat posed by Nazi Germany, producing works of outstanding beauty and pathos in an attempt to raise the alarm. Most powerful perhaps the poems and plays of Bertolt Brecht or the writings of Walter Benjamin.

It is in this context, the loss of everything dear and familiar, under threat of arbitrary arrest, concentration camps and death, that we must place the production of what is perhaps one of the most innovative, poetically moving, beautifully crafted and, above all, intellectually stimulating Modernist art works created in Europe’s darkest hours: Charlotte Salomon’s life cycle Life? Or Theatre?

Griselda Pollock’s volume is dedicated to both further widen the growing awareness and importance of the work and to deepen our understanding of it through the prism of an art historical approach to the work and a “close reading” of a number of key paintings contained in its 784 elements. In this, I would argue, she only partially succeeds.

Pollack cogently builds an unassailable case that the work should not be read as a simple autobiographical depiction of the short life of Charlotte Salomon but must be seen as a deeply thoughtful questioning of life and its meaning through what Pollock terms the “theatre of memory” deployed by Salomon in Life? Or Theatre?

In examining what Pollock labels the “everyday and the event” she argues that Life? Or Theatre? is both an attempt to depict and understand the event (the rise of racial anti-Jewish fascism in Germany) alongside the “everyday” life of an artistic and intellectually aware Germany Jewish household, and in particular the oppression of women, sexual abuse and suicide.

Crucially she argues that the work is one of hope, that even in the most dark and dreadful moments we must find a way to live, not merely to survive, but to hold onto life and live a full and meaningful existence.