October 20, 2018

“Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel” (“Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play”)


A unique exposition in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam until March 25th 2018.

By John Dunkelgrün.

Salomon (1917-1943), perhaps the least known of the great 20th century painters has produced an absolutely unique oeuvre. It comprises some 1600 paintings and gouaches that depict her life story. Her work cannot be properly understood without knowing that life story. While many of her works show her to be very much part of the mid 20th century art scene, it is as a total story that her work has unique value.

She was born into a wealthy family in Berlin. Her father was a famous doctor, who is credited with the invention of the mammogram. The family was at the center of Berlin’s cultural life and she grew up in a huge and fashionable apartment surrounded by servants. However, there was a deep dark streak in the family with her aunt, her mother and much later her grandmother committing suicide.

Her father remarried a well known contralto four years after his wife’s death. Meanwhile Charlotte (as she is generally known) had developed a love for art. In 1935 she was, surprisingly for a Jew at the time, admitted to Berlin’s Academy of arts, because “her character was so modest and reserved, it would not pose a threat to male Aryan students”. Nevertheless, when she won first prize in a blind competition, the prize was given to a fellow student and she had to leave the Academy.

Meanwhile her stepmother had engaged a voice teacher who became Charlotte’s tutor and first lover. After 1933 the family’s social life steadily shrank and the mortal menace of the Nazi regime started to sink in. Following Kristallnacht in 1938 her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in Villefranche sur Mer in the South of France.

There, a year later her grandmother tried to hang herself. They had moved from Villefranche to a small apartment in Nice, where her grandmother succeeded in her quest for death by jumping out of the 3rd floor window. Her grandfather then told her about the family history of suicides. This weighed heavily upon her and together with her experience in Berlin it caused her extreme anxiety.

A doctor, Dr. Georges Moridis, suggested she started painting her experiences as therapy. This she did in a complete frenzy, painting day and night, hardly eating or sleeping.

Her visa required that she be the caretaker of her grandfather, who started to make ever stronger sexual demands of her. This became so unbearable that she decided to kill him by spiking his omelette with Veronal.

The murder was not detected, but she wrote about it and even painted the man while he was dying. Meanwhile she had married Alexander Nagler, a Jewish refugee from Romania from whom she expected a child.

Then in 1943 after the Germans had occupied Vichy France as well and demanded that all Jews register, Charlotte packed all her works in brown paper and handed them to Dr. Morides with a plea to take good care of them, as they “contained her whole life”. Then she and her husband registered as Jews rather than go into hiding, perhaps as her own act of suicide. They were taken to the infamous transition camp of Drancy and hence to Auschwitz where they were both murdered.

Ironically her parents survived, hiding out in The Netherlands. Dr. Morides duly gave them the packages for which they had six red boxes especially made. It would be years and years before they decided to share them with the world. The current exposition in the JHM is the first that shows all her gouaches, some 800 of them, in chronological order. It is an incredible visible history of a family caught in the most calamitous episode of the 20th century.

It shows the coming of age of a young woman in a family slowly squeezed out of a charmed cultured life. It shows her development as an artist, and early love for her tutor. It depicts her exile in France and the unbearable weight of her family history. As such, while most of the works are of great artistic merit in themselves, it is a a totality that it is an absolutely unique word of art.


Note from the author: For this article I have drawn extensively on the July 2017 New Yorker article by Toni Bentley.

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