On the 26th of February 1981 three events took place that laid the basis for the recognition of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) as the creator of one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. An exhibition of her work opened in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam; the film “Charlotte,” directed by Frans Weisz with a scenario by him and Judith Herzberg, had its première; and the first complete edition of her monumental work Life? or Theater? was published. Schwartz was the publisher of the book. He looks back with a sense of achievement, unfortunately blighted by recent events.
Forty years ago this week the greatest moment in my twenty years as a publisher took place, which was also one of the greatest moments of my 80 years as a human being. On 26 February 1981 I brought out an integral edition of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece Life? or Theater? The book reproduces, in full-page color, 769 gouaches, numbered in sequence, with the texts written on them and on 211 sheets of tracing paper that were laid over the first numbered gouaches. (There are a few hundred unnumbered and rejected sheets.) In a work that she called a “three-color musical play” (dreifarben Singespiel), Lotte (as her family called her) drew on all she had experienced in life to create on paper a work whose nature as life or performance – much of the “First Act” is set to music – she left to the reader to decide.
From Lotte’s stepmother Paula Salomon-Lindberg and her cousin Hugo Buchthal, I learned that Lotte was painfully shy and, as Buchthal wrote to me, “uncommonly unarticulate.” Rather than talking, we find out from Life? or Theater?, she was looking and listening, storing up in memory and capturing in her emotions everything that was going on between the people in her life and between them and her. That life began on 16 April 1917, during one German war, in which her father served as an army surgeon, and ended on 10 October 1943, in another, in which she was murdered.
Those of you who do not yet know Charlotte Salomon and her work, please go to the spectacular website put up by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where her work is preserved: https://jck.nl/en/node/3396. In addition to background information, it offers the complete Life? or Theater?, in Charlotte’s German, with Dutch, French and English translations. (She painted it in the south of France in 1940-42, where it stayed behind until it was retrieved by her parents, who brought it to Amsterdam.)
Let me show you just one page, of a gouache alone and then with the dialogue between the two figures on tracing paper. No printed edition has yet tried to reproduce the latter on transparent paper, so that you can see both effects. This is wonderfully made possible on the museum website. The words are not only colorful and graphically expressive; they also bring out the rhyme that turns the scene into a musical duet and that is otherwise easily overlooked (as it is in two of the three rhymes in the translation below, by Leila Vennewitz, which I missed when she made it for me). (Schuf-Beruf; Mann-kann- an.) It shows the pivotal moment when young Charlotte tells her opera-singer stepmother Paulinka Bimbam (Paula Salomon-Lindberg) that she wants to become an artist.
CHARLOTTE. “I’m taking drawing lessons, for that’s a career
that God for all created – why not for me right here?”
PAULINKA. “Yes, and you can learn fashion drawing, for that’s a career at which you can make money, and you know I only respect a person who can make money and earn a living. Because that’s what’s important.
“And then there’s tailoring (a-ling), tailoring (a-ling), you’ll have to learn that too.”
Same tune. [“Ich hört’ ein Bächlein rauschen,” from Schubert’s song cycle “Der schöne Müllerin,” a setting of poems by Wilhelm Müller]
When Charlotte painted this in the south of France, in her early twenties, her belief in herself as an artist had taken possession of her; her power could not have been greater. In the gouache she is able to give herself the shrunken but assertive self-image she had at the age of twelve or thirteen.
The moment I laid eyes on Charlotte it was love at first sight. Love not only for her immersive creation and for her persona Charlotte Knarre, as child, adolescent and young woman, but also for Charlotte Salomon herself, who survived untold family, racial and wartime tragedies to sublimate and magnify her world into a work of everlasting art, before she survived no longer.
That moment was in the summer of 1978, when I was translating for the Jewish Historical Museum a book on highlights of the collection and came upon the copy and images for this spread:
Charlotte drawing, and in conversation with Daberlohn (Alfred Wolfsohn), the man to whose attention for her, in a complex of coaching, bullying, impressing, demanding, neglecting; of jealousy-incitement, intellectual inspiration, love and sex, she attributes the strength she found to “vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”
When I went to the museum to go through all the hundreds of sheets, taking notes to see whether it could be published as a complete book, I became one of fewer than a dozen people ever to do so. In 1963 a selection of 80 gouaches, numbered and unnumbered, had been published, but no attempt had been made to display the whole. Getting it into print, in the midst of a recession, was a feat of which I am prouder than anything I have done in public life. What greater service can a publisher perform than making a major work of art accessible for the first time, of introducing it to the world? For the coming issue of the magazine of the Jewish Historical Museum I wrote a brief account of how the edition came into being, and why the anniversary of 26 February 2021 is so important.
In the best of a steadily growing number of books on Charlotte Salomon, To paint her life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi era (1994), this is what Mary Felstiner wrote about the edition and its impact:
In 1981 a splendid edition of Life? or Theater?, with all the numbered paintings and captions in 769 color plates, was produced by art historian Gary Schwartz. […] Then critics finally credited CS’s paintings. […] The full edition of Life? or Theater? circulated, and selections of paintings radiated to Jewish museum in the United States and Israel. Then they went to Berlin, where fifty years after the academy expelled the artist, it exhibited her.
Subsequent editions, of extracts or of the complete work, have been brought out by publishers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and the United States. Concerning the most recent ones, brought out by Le Tripode in Paris in 2015, I have something painful to say. I suppose I should stand above the bitter feelings that they have inflicted on me, or at least pretend to stand above them, but they hurt too much for that. Not content with his own considerable achievement in producing the first French edition of Charlotte’s book, for which I have high regard, the publisher Frédéric Martin of Le Tripode also found it necessary to claim that his editions – besides French, also Dutch, English and Italian – were the first book editions of Life? or Theater?. They embodied a concept so new and daring, he says, that the curators of the Jewish Historical Museum were shocked when he presented it to them, as if he were showing them Charlotte’s work for the first time. He expressed compassion for his benighted predecessors in publishing, who after all lived in an era before the graphic novel existed, and therefore could not have known that that is what Life? or Theater? is. They printed Charlotte’s work only in the form of catalogues of individual works on paper. See his outrageous video interview at http://www.mediapart.fr/portfolios/charlotte-salomon-enfin-lintegrale.
Martin’s pretension that my edition does not exist did not prevent him from pirating the Dutch and English translations that I brought out in 1981, with no permission and no acknowledgment, and mimicking the editorial decisions built into the first edition. Adding hurt upon hurt, the directors of the Jewish Historical Museum, while fully acknowledging their compliance in the deceit, refuse to this day to issue a public correction. I will keep after them until they do, or are held to account by others.
Having gotten that off my chest, I can end with a repeated declaration of love for Charlotte Salomon, whose life became entwined with mine 40 years ago.
© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 23 February 2021.
Airing my grievances online about such offenses can do more than just provide me with a moment of uneasy relief. My column about how Griselda Pollock suppressed her sources concerning Charlotte in the south of France, Marthe Pécher’s priceless letters and Griselda Pollock’s alternative facts, was found by a granddaughter of Marthe Pécher’s husband. She is eager to know more about Marthe, and it gave me great satisfaction that I was able to introduce her to people in São Paulo who knew Marthe after her emigration to Brazil.
Travel restrictions continue to interfere with my work. The Netherlands is on the list of high-risk countries in Switzerland and Germany, which I have to visit to complete a book on which I am working. The Dutch libraries and museums that I need are closed, their staffs working mainly from home. But the restrictions have some advantages. The Rijksmuseum and some other libraries are offering a free scanning service for articles and book chapters. And some of the colleagues to whom I turn, even some I have never met, go out of their way to be more helpful than would be expected of them in normal conditions.
A blood test last week confirmed that I’m harboring covid-19 antibodies, which I interpret to mean that I caught a case in London, Oxford, Maastricht or Amstenrade on 4, 5, 6 or 7 March 2020, the last week when we could behave as if we weren’t in the immediate danger that we were. Coming Saturday Loekie (who was certainly infected in Maastricht or Amstenrade) and I are getting our first vaccinations. We can consider ourselves lucky. Less than 4% of the population has been inoculated, and it was announced yesterday that because of delays in the delivery of vaccines no new invitations were going out for the next three weeks. The Dutch response to the crisis has been farcical from the start, when our prime minister announced that we were going into an “intelligent lockdown,” as if he knew how to outsmart the virus. He doesn’t.
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