The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam has opened one of the most remarkable exhibitions you are ever likely to see, Charlotte Salomon. Life? or Theatre? It runs for a generous five months from 20 October 2017 to 25 March 2018. The occasion is the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth in 1917. In 1943 she was murdered in Auschwitz.
Life? or Theatre? is one of a kind. It depicts in paint, tells in text, records in dialogue, and accompanies in song the (barely) fictionalized life story of the Berlin Jewish artist who made it, in the south of France, between 1940 and 1942. It is peopled by characters drawn from her life, with different – sometimes only slightly different – names but unmistakably and often humorously recognizable faces, personalities and histories.
Allow me to show you one of the 769 gouaches and one of the 211 overlay sheets that make up Life? or Theatre?
When she was nine years old, Charlotte Salomon’s mother died. Her father was an ambitious surgeon with no time for child-rearing. He put his daughter into the care of a succession of governesses. When she was thirteen, her father remarried. Here is how, ten years later, as a trained academic artist, Salomon told about, depicted and sang this decisive transition in her life.
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig [bin], ich glaube die Glocken läuten – das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn
[I know not what is this yearning, the sadness filling my heart, I seem to hear church bells ringing – and ne’er from that sound can I part]
This is the entire gouache on which Salomon painted the details above.
The sixteen details are not divided by lines or frames. They do, however, have different backgrounds, distinguished by color and/or dots or stipples.
The text is written and painted on a separate sheet of tracing paper of the same size as the gouache. Illustrated left on its own, right as an overlay.
It seems to me that the process of creation must have begun with a text recounting the sixteen moments painted in the details, which look like illustrations of the incidents described. But the written text on the tracing paper, which takes account of the contours of the composition, must have followed the painting. So there seems to be a missing element – a text, perhaps a notebook, in which Salomon wrote out her story before starting to paint it.
The gouache and overlay above are typical of the “Prelude” of Life? or Theatre?, the section dealing with the heroine’s early life, when every day was an eternity. The closer she gets to the present, the quicker the pace and the more abbreviated the forms.
In this sheet from the “Epilogue,” Charlotte is standing beside the body of her grandmother, who has just jumped out of a window to her death. This takes place in the south of France, where the grandparents and granddaughter have sought safety from the Nazis.
The words “I hope you’ll never forget that I believe in you” were spoken to Charlotte in Berlin, before her departure, by the lover before whom she kneels in a previous image. More than a lover, Amadeus Daberlohn (Alfred Wolfsohn [1896-1962]), who came into her life as a (Jewish) voice coach for her (Jewish) stepmother, when Jews were only allowed to work for each other, was an inspiration of cosmic proportion, the motivator behind her decision, after her grandmother’s suicide, to turn her life into a work of art. I will say no more about the content or complexity of Life? or Theatre? I urge you to read it, either in the book edition I brought out in 1981, on the website, or best of all at the exhibition.
When I first went through Life? or Theatre? in 1978 I was overwhelmed and have remained so. The experience is now intensified by the exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum, curated by Mirjam Knotter, which presents all 769 numbered gouaches of the work, in sequence and with transcriptions of the texts, supplemented by a disturbing painted letter. Explanatory and supplementary material includes wall texts, interactive screens, music in headsets, videos, household objects that belonged to Charlotte and several works preceding Life? or Theater? Even more complete is the website offered by the museum. It presents the entire work, with the tracing sheets that you can slide with variable opacity across the gouaches they accompany; the painted reverses of the gouaches, some of which are numbered and belong to the main work; and 193 unnumbered gouaches related to Life? or Theatre?, as well as the painted letter. The texts can be read in one of four languages. You can listen to a reading of the English translation in a pleasant British woman’s voice and to the music cited.
Life? or Theatre? is full of ambiguities and traps that force one into false responses. There is more than one example in the page illustrated. Three of the four lines of the text written forcefully in red are from a famous poem by Heinrich Heine, “Die Loreley,” which was often set to music. But the second line is different. Where Heine spoke of being saddened by “ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten” (a fairytale from the depths of time), Charlotte writes “Ich glaube die Glocken läuten” (I think the bells are ringing). There is an intriguing possible reason for this. Charlotte’s stepmother to be was Paula Lindberg (1897-2000). In Life? or Theatre? Charlotte gives her the name Paulinka Bimbam. In German the word bimbam means glockenläuten – bell-ringing. Inserting bell-ringing into Heine’s mournful poem marks Paula’s entry into Charlotte’s life with a tinge of unshakeable sadness. (With thanks to Loekie Schwartz for this find.). She also leaves out the last word of the first line – “bin” – which is always supplied in transcriptions of this sheet, with no explanation given.
Far more extreme is her play with the title of her creation.
On the final gouache it comes out, written on her back, as LEBEN ODER THEATER with a kind of question mark after Theater. The tracing sheet on top of it reads DAS LEBEN ODER DAS THEATER ???, while the title page gives it as LEBEN? ODER TELEATER? The reading TELEATER was first published in 1998 by Judith Belinfante, writing
On the first page Charlotte Salomon paints the title of the work, and gives us her first surprise. It reads Life? or Theatre? but the letters can also be read as Teleater where the prefix “tele” implies Charlotte’s need to see things from a distance.
Belinfante was not ready to go all the way and state that the letters cannot be read in any other way at all than TELEATER. She seems to say that “Teleater” was a word invented by Salomon, and that it implied the preservation of distance. Since then she has made the discovery that Teleater was the product name of a real object that was undoubtedly well known to Salomon. An online museum of binoculars created in 2013 by Johann Leichtfried of Höbersbrunn, Austria tells us that “The teleater was the first Zeiss opera glasses. First made with black leather covering, in 1907/08. Produced until 1931.”
Judith Belinfante must have realized this in the meanwhile. Her successor directors of the museum told me that it was she who donated to the museum a Teleater, now installed in the exhibition in a case together with the title page. [See correction below.]
Knowing this, Belinfante’s initial interpretation of the word requires reversal. An opera glass functions not to keep things at a distance but to bring them closer by. This certainly is more fitting, I believe, for what Salomon does in Life? or Theater?
In the meanwhile, then, Charlotte Salomon’s masterpiece has come to be known by a title she never gave it, with a double question she never posed. It gives a somewhat conventional title to a work she called “wildly eccentric.” Who will be brave enough to follow her and retitle her creation Life? or Teleater?
© 2017 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 30 October 2017. Texts translated from the German by the late Leila Vennewitz (1912-2007), first published in Charlotte Salomon, Life or Theater? An autobiographical play with music, Maarssen (Gary Schwartz) 1981, with preface by Judith Belinfante, introduction by Judith Herzberg and editorial note by Gary Schwartz. Photography of the gouaches by Frits Terpoorten, here photographed from the printed pages. The text sheet on tracing paper from the website charlotte.jck.nl.
Correction, 30 October: It was not Judith Belinfante who found the link to the Zeiss Teleater but Mirjam Knotter, during her research for the exhibition. It was she who tipped Judith Belinfante when a Teleater showed up on eBay; Judith paid for the purchase. Mirjam mailed this information in response to the column and added that she sought a way to conjoin “Theater” and “Teleater” in a graphic rendition of the title, but decided – who can say she was wrong? not I – that this was too complex to handle.
Amplification, 2 November: Katja Reichenfeld reminded me that in 2002 the Jewish Historical Museum brought out a cd-rom with all the content now shown in the Dutch and English sections of the website at http://charlotte.jck.nl. The navigation in a cd-rom lacks the improved functionality of a present-dat website, but the editorial work was all done by 2002.
There is so much to say below the line that I cannot even begin.
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