384 The man who was Charlotte’s muse

Few of us ever come as deeply under the influence of another person as Charlotte Salomon was affected by Alfred Wolfsohn. To his charismatic teachings we owe the existence of one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. One tie that bound them to each other was the movies. A new exhibition shows how.


Photo from Sheila Braggins, Alfred Wolfsohn: the man and his ideas, privately published in September 2003

The German Jewish voice teacher Alfred Wolfsohn (1896-1962) was a world-class influencer who exercised his influence only in person. He did not have many followers, but those who fell under his spell were never the same again. They called him by his initials AW, pronounced Ah-Vay, suspiciously close to the German pronunciation of Jahweh. What he had to offer was not a message or a product or a feel-good technique to get you into your comfort zone. Wolfsohn was discomfort personified. He put you on a hard climb toward your own utmost potential. He urged and spurred and shamed his followers to aim beyond themselves, at prodigious creations, beyond anything anyone else had ever dreamed of.

As he told it, his approach came into being as a self-discovered means to overcome a life-changing trauma of his own. Serving in the German army in the First World War at the age of seventeen, he underwent an experience of guilt-ridden, unimaginable horror. Following an attack on the French front:

These were not empty phrases for Wolfsohn. It took long, painful years, but the struggle brought him to the saving realization that the sounds he had heard dying soldiers make were like the crying of babies – raw, unmediated expression. Between these extremes at the outer edges of life we use our voices differently, in socially dictated modes. This awareness allowed Wolfsohn, without insisting on a theory, to work with singers on far broader terms than conventional voice training or performance technique. Our voices can do much more than producing the approved speech or singing we like to hear; their unused capacities are linked to personality traits that get suppressed along with our unlearned sounds. Wolfsohn pushed his pupils to explore and exploit these resources. One result of his training is that singers could extend their vocal capabilities beyond beauty and to ranges of five, for some even eight octaves. (A 30-minute opera for the Roy Hart Theatre, which puts Wolfsohn’s ideas into performative and pedagogical practice, is Eight songs for a mad king, by Peter Maxwell Davies.)

Training singers was his profession, but Wolfsohn worked with – worked on is probably more like it – anyone at all with whom he had rapport. He had a guiding motto that he took away from his trauma and its aftermath: “One must go into oneself first, to be able to go outside oneself.” He could teach this, and press toward its implications, to anyone. The Wolfsohn follower who is now best known is an artist: Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). Following a period of highly intensive contact with him in Berlin, when she was 20 and he twice as old, she was sent to her grandparents in the south of France by her father and stepmother, in a flight from Nazi Germany. There she found her grandmother in mortal despair and was unable to keep her from jumping out a window to her death. Her odious grandfather then revealed to her the family secret that her mother, along with seven other relatives, had also committed suicide, and prompted her to do the same.

Building on and benefiting from Wolfsohn’s example, Charlotte chose for life. Thanks to him this did not require years of soul-searching; she did it at once. With her own life, intertwined with his, as a medium, she wrote and painted 1325 gouaches and sheets of tracing paper in an unprecedented, unparalleled ensemble of texted art, in part to the accompaniment of music. She numbered 769 of the gouaches, titling them, with some 200 tracing sheets, not Life or Death? but Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater? A “Singspiel in three colors”). I read this as a corrective reaction to Wolfsohn’s vitalism. The Wolfsohn solution, it says, is not an immersion into normal life, but into a part in a performance with a one-to-one relation to reality. Those who knew her described Charlotte as shy to the point of reclusiveness. Her creation, and her persona in it, Charlotte Knarre, gave her just the distance she needed to put life itself at her command.

The Alfred Wolfsohn character in Life? or Theater? is called Amadeus Daberlohn. The manuscript of a book he wrote in the 1930s, Orpheus, oder Der Weg zu einer Maske (Orpheus, or the way to a mask), is given a cameo role in the story.

A passage on singing as expression, from Leila Vennewitz’s translation of Life? or Theater? (Daberlohn) and that of Marita Günther, revised by Sheila Braggins, of Orpheus (Wolfsohn), reads like this:

Wolfsohn’s understanding of the voice and the self did not stop at the boundaries of individuality. He was intent on integrating his ideas into larger realms and hooking them onto outside processes. The expansive psychology of Carl Jung provided a large metaphysical space for his method, while a mechanical tool for furthering the aim of going into and out of the self he saw in the movies.

After trying to digest this typically abstruse message, by all means treat yourself  for four and a half minutes to Eleanor Powell’s soft-shoe masterpiece finale in “Broadway Melody of 1938.”

And then indulge in Wolfsohn’s perfectly understandable association. (The documentary on Würzburg Cathedral, with the old lady praying, has not yet been located.)

The above is by way of a recommendation that you visit the delightful and insightful exhibition in the Jewish Historical Museum Charlotte Salomon in close-up: on the influence of cinema on Life? or Theater? It is the work of curator Mirjam Knotter, who also signed for the unrepeatable 2017/18 exhibition of the complete work. Her new display is the first of a planned series of thematic exhibitions on Life? or Theater? It opened on 13 March 2020, the day when the Dutch prime minister proclaimed the corona virus lockdown, giving the exhibition an initial, record-breaking run of two hours. Fortunately it has now reopened and can be visited until 22 November. The exhibition shows that cinema meant even more to Charlotte than the meanings assigned to it by Alfred Wolfsohn. Here is one of her great visual finds:

Sending Charlotte to the south of France turned out to be a fatal mistake. In 1939 Wolfsohn escaped to London and Charlotte’s father Albert Salomon and his second wife Paula Lindberg to Holland, where they survived the German occupation. When the Germans took over from the Italians the occupation of the south of France, Charlotte was taken to Auschwitz, where she was murdered on 10 October 1943. After the war Albert and Paula retrieved her magnum opus from the house of an American woman who had given Charlotte hospitality after the deaths of her grandparents and to whom Life? or Theater? is dedicated, Ottilie Moore.

Life? or Theater? can be read in a number of editions in print, in German, English, Dutch, French and Italian editions. Most conveniently and completely, it is available on the website of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where the work is preserved. Go to https://charlotte.jck.nl/ for the German original and Dutch and English translations, with vocal readings and the overlay tracing sheets in place on order.

Here is the German manuscript of Orpheus and here an English translation. The largest collection of materials relating to Wolfsohn is in the Jewish Museum, Berlin.

Thanks to the research and generosity of the Jewish Historical Museum, I can share with you links to seven of the films Charlotte could – probably will – have seen.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVI_VIyQu3w

Der Letzte Mann (1924)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7yiZM-SlwI

The Lodger (1927)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qFiw5VtmyI

Metropolis (1927)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvtWDIZtrAE

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIzq88j7zT4

Menschen am Sonntag (1930)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hg_vL6lQ6I

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIazR6yiwcA

The museum is screening them on successive Friday afternoons. https://jck.nl/en/exhibition/charlotte-salomon-close

© Gary Schwartz 2020; the images from Life? or Theater? courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum. Published on the Schwartzlist on 8 July 2020


Mirjam Knotter and I have been collaborating on various projects for fifteen years. In 2006 on the Jewish Historical Museum exhibition The “Jewish” Rembrandt: the myth unravelled and in coupled presentations at a Rembrandt symposium in Berlin: “Rembrandt’s Hebrew” (Mirjam, on a subject to which she dedicated a master’s thesis) and “Rembrandt’s Hebrews” (me). We are now working on an exhibition for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow: Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes. We also talk a lot about Charlotte Salomon.


What our prime minister calls an “intelligent lockdown” has not brought me those seas of free time that everyone else seems to be enjoying. My situation is well illustrated in this image that some good soul put up on Facebook.

There is work on the three exhibitions of which I am guest curator. Mainly, though, I have been writing a book on this painting:

It has an utterly fascinating provenance (King Willem II of the Netherlands; the grand ducal court at Weimar; the Weimar museum; a bunch of burglars; a German seaman; a plumber in Dayton, Ohio; the U.S. government, in care of the National Gallery of Art; the West German government, in care of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Hereditary Grand Duchess Elisabeth von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach) and critical history (an unquestioned Rembrandt self-portrait until September 1968, since then in attributional limbo). Any information you may have about it is very welcome.

Another self-portrait. Yesterday Loekie and I received the maiden issue of a new glossy by and about our eleven-year-old grandson Abel. He is phenomenally good at transforming photos into digital images like this. I am equally impressed by his creativity as a graphic designer. Why waste the stem of the letter K when you can make it do double duty as an I by putting a dot on top of it? The magazine is called IK (Me). No subscription information yet.


Another claim on my time has come from completely unexpected quarters. On both sides of my family I have come into contact over the past month with second cousins of whose existence I was unaware and who have been conducting extensive family research. Tomas Kertész of Stockholm is the great-grandson of the brother of my maternal great-grandfather Isaac Friedman, from Budapest; and Howard Rosenblum of Ottawa the great-grandson of the sister of my paternal grandfather Albert Schwartz, from a village in the south of Poland. I now know the names of numerous relatives, and have learned very upsetting things about them.

From Tomas I found out that ten members of my family were killed in the Holocaust. They were the brother (aged 79), sister-in-law (73), nephews and nieces of my great-grandfather, whom I knew well as a child and who attended my bar-mitzvah before he died, 93 years old, in Brooklyn. He lived with my grandparents, and they must have known about these deaths but never told me, and perhaps not even my parents, about them. Why I will never know. Finding out about this for the first at the age of 80 gives that much more of a jolt.

My paternal grandparents lived a few blocks away from my mother’s parents, in East New York, Brooklyn, where I grew up. Their house nearly abutted the back yard of the house where according to the 1940 census my grandfather’s sister lived. Her family name, which must also have been his, was Szwarcberg. I knew that the name had been truncated on Ellis Island, but not that it was spelled this way. What upset me is that my grandfather, whom we visited every Shabbat and holiday for years, on the same walks that brought us to my mother’s parents, never introduced us to or even told us about his sister, my father’s aunt. My grandfather’s religious intolerance, stubbornness and authoritarianism were legendary, but that they led to a family split of this extremeness causes fresh pain.

In the very act of discovering these relatives, I also lose them.


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