Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?

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Charlotte Salomon was born at the end of the First World War and grew up in Berlin with her Jewish parents. The work on display in this show is a history of her family before she was born and her own life story. However if you go to this exhibition expecting to be immersed in the Jewish experience of Berlin, you’re going to have your ideas turned on their head.

There was almost nothing that was “culturally” Jewish about the Salomons’ day-to-day lives. There is no record in the work of Jewish festivals but time was marked by Christmas with trees and songs. I was shocked that when her mother died she was cremated (in Jewish law, as in Islam, the body should be buried whole). When Charlotte was accepted into art college after the whole Jewish staff had been sacked, it was because she was quiet and she didn’t look Jewish.

The idea persists today that if only minorities, especially Muslims, would integrate more into British society they would suffer less racism. Life? or Theatre? shows how hollow that argument is. It is not any perceived cultural difference that causes racism, it is always a political “othering” to create divisions among working people and to carry a scapegoating message.

This exhibition contains over 200 images, and that’s a fraction of the work. The paintings are hugely inventive, using distorted space that overlaps and breaks, very much like a contemporary graphic novel.

In fact at the beginning I felt the title could have been Life? or Cinema? because the structure feels like a storyboard for an expressionist film.

This is enhanced by the inclusion of a soundtrack that Salomon suggests for some images. There is also a text that is overlaid on tracing paper or painted directly onto the images which is reminiscent of Apollinaire poetry. And the dynamic use of colour defines the emotional impact of each page. It truly is a breathtakingly original body of work, created in about 14 months between 1940 and 1942.

The narrative deals with the complex emotional lives of Salomon’s family, their mental distress, suicides and abuse. It also tracks her own development in a violent, incomprehensible world.

As Salomon writes, “She found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly insane”. What she created was uncompromisingly honest, not flinching from death or madness, but channelling it onto the page.

Jacqueline Rose, in the chapter on Salomon in Women in Dark Times, writes about Charlotte’s striving to understand the people in her family, to “live for them all”, as the opposite of fascism with its destruction of difference and therefore empathy.

When Salomon finished creating Life? or Theatre? she left it with a friend, saying “Take good care of it. It is my entire life.” Within a year she would be killed in Auschwitz.