Publishing a book is in part like throwing a bottled message into the sea. One such message, in a book by the Holocaust victim Charlotte Salomon that I brought out in 1981, was answered with a beautiful letter from a witness to the creation of Charlotte’s masterpiece. Schwartz is upset that the author of a big new book on the artist exploits that letter but ignores its writer.
In September 1981, the art critic Mark Stevens wrote in Newsweek an appreciative review of a book I had published earlier that year: Charlotte: Life or Theater? An autobiographical play by Charlotte Salomon. I take no exception to the judgment in Women in world history, that it is “considered to be one of the greatest works of art of the Holocaust,” except to expand the claim and call it one of the greatest works of art of the twentieth century. Readers who do not yet know it can see the 769 gouaches and their texts on the outstanding web publication put up by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where the work is kept. The German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon created Leben? oder Theater? (one of the titles she gives it) in the south of France between 1941 and 1943, before in December 1943 she was taken to Auschwitz to be murdered.
Mark Stevens’s review came to the attention of a woman in São Paolo, Brazil, Marthe Pécher, who had run a small hotel in the town of Saint-Jean- Cap-Ferrat where Charlotte stayed for part of the time she worked on her magnum opus. Pécher wrote a letter to the co-publisher identified in the review, Allen Lane in London, who forwarded it to me. Receiving her letter, and our subsequent correspondence, was the most moving experience of my twenty years in publishing. Below is an English translation of my own.
I have just learned that you are publishing a book under the title “Charlotte” and that it is the biography of Charlotte Salomon.
Forgive me for writing to you in French, but I would not be able to express in English the emotion and the memories sparked in me by the article “Portraits of Pain” in Newsweek, Sept. 21, 1981.
We – my husband and myself – had a small hotel (“Belle Aurore”) on the Côte d’Azur, in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. One day a young girl came to rent a room. It was Charlotte Salomon.
I cannot remember exactly, but I believe she spent 2 or 3 months with us.
The entire garden and sunny terraces were at her disposal, but she almost never left her small room (Nr. 1, on the first floor), which faced west. She was always painting, singing all the time. We asked ourselves when or if she ate, when or if she slept.
The war was on, it was winter (I think 1941-42), it was cold, there was hunger. Often, of an evening, I would take her a bowl of hot soup, meagre soup made of rutabaga or Jerusalem artichokes. She accepted it happily and we would chat for a moment. Each time there was a different painting on her easel. She explained that she was painting the scenes of her life. I can only remember those paintings vaguely. One day she told me about a great orchestra conductor, about a famous woman singer. I do not remember their names.
It was the beginning of the period when the Jews were being persecuted, especially foreign Jews. One evening, Lotte told me the following: having learned that the Jews were required to present themselves to the authorities, she went to Nice (10 km. from St. Jean Cap Ferrat) to do so. They put her into a bus in which other people were already seated. But before the bus left, a French policeman called her. She got out of the bus and the policeman then told her to leave quickly and go back home. So she came back and told me about it. I asked her why she had gone to denounce herself. She replied that the new law concerned Jews, and being Jewish she had to obey. She was guided by her ethical convictions.
It goes without saying that at the time we could not even conceive of the existence of those extermination camps. But we did already know that we were dealing with bandits. So should we be guided by our sense of ethics in our relations with bandits?
No one would have taken Lotte for a Jewess. She was the perfect “Aryan,” the very image of the German “Gretchen.” If she had wanted to defend herself, she need not have been deported. But her sense of ethics led her to share the fate of her kindred. In the end, what do we know about the highest, truest values of our life? Perhaps Lotte accomplished the highest mission of her life by shining like a ray of sunshine (which I do not doubt) for her kindred, on their road to death.
Always jolly and smiling, after the bus incident she returned to her work, once more like a person possessed. Was it the thought that she did not have much time left, or did she want to finish before presenting herself, of her own volition, at that bureau?
I asked myself why, if she had family in the area, she came to work among strangers. Now I understand that, wanting to paint “her entire life” as she had spent it in intimacy, it would have been difficult to do so with a family member looking over her shoulder.
A short time later, Lotte told us that she was going to live with friends (I imagine in Nice). We parted in the hope that she would shortly return. And that was it.
Later on, all of St. Jean Cap Ferrat was evacuated and planted with mines. Returning after the war, my own investigations concerning Lotte were fruitless. Then we sold the hotel and left for Brazil.
During these nearly 40 years I have often thought about this admirable and pure girl who without any doubt belonged to the ranks of the righteous, so few of them in our modern world.
I did not have much hope that she was still alive.
However, I am happy to know that at least her work has survived.
Most sincerely, dear sirs,
P.S. Enclosed is the photo of the house where Charlotte Salomon lived. The arrow points to the room where she “painted her life.”
Photos of Marthe Pécher by Joyce Miller, 28 January 1984
Marthe and I corresponded regularly from then until her death in the 1990s. I treasured her friendship, and that of her younger friend Fanny Ligeti and Fanny’s daughters, who cared for Marthe when she became deaf and frail.
An amulet that Marthe sent me always sits on my desk, in my imagination looking at me through her eye and Charlotte’s.
The urge to translate and publicize this letter was inspired by the appearance earlier this year of a new book on Charlotte Salomon, 542 pages long, by Griselda Pollock, Charlotte Salomon and the theatre of memory, New Haven and London (Yale University Press). I turned immediately to the index to find out what Pollock had to say about Marthe Pécher, whose correspondence is the only first-hand evidence we have concerning the artist’s behavior while creating her work. I was dismayed not to find her name in the index. Pollock mines the letter (with no credit to its source) for locating Charlotte’s room in La Belle Aurore, where she took pictures, but ignores the rest of its contents and its writer.
Reading in the book, I think I understand why. Griselda Pollock is less interested in other people’s contributions than in her own agonizings over certain self-created problems.
For example, she objects to “the cultural reception of Leben? oder Theater? as autobiographical,” an attitude that stands in the way of her own interpretation of the work. Denying the obvious, she contends that its “purpose was far more complex, original and challenging than retelling tales of her or anyone else’s lives and deaths.” I find myself forced to suppose that Pollock leaves out the testimony of Marthe Pécher in order not to have to contradict Charlotte Salomon when she told Marthe Pécher “that she was painting the scenes of her life.”
In keeping with her anti-autobiographical pose, Pollock takes me to task, in a chapter titled “What’s in a name? What’s in a frame?,” for putting a self-portrait on the cover of Charlotte’s book, with her given name (which is also the name of the heroine of the work; to friends and family the artist was Lotte), and for titling the English edition Charlotte: Life or theater? An autobiographical play by Charlotte Salomon. Pollock’s understanding of the matter she puts in these sphinxlike words: “Such a paradoxical unnaming introduced a specifically gendered perspective on the issue of namelessness.” (Yale: Publishing a sentence like that should be a punishable offense.)
Because she makes such a point of cover design, author’s name and book title, let me show the title pages of the original editions in English, Dutch and German, with the cover of the German edition.
These formulations and choices came about not because I was out to “frame” or “gender” Charlotte Salomon in any particular way, but in consultation with the co-publishers. Their preferences were based on what they thought gave the expensive book the best chance in their market, a book by an unknown artist for which they were risking hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds, guilders and Deutschmarks. Griselda Pollock, being out to frame me, did not bother to look at other language editions than the English one, such as my own Dutch edition, or talk to me about how the 769 gouaches and texts of Life? or Theater? got to be put between covers, in full-page color reproductions, in what was said at the time to be the most ambitious illustrated book ever published.
Griselda had time enough to do so. In February 1997, at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Toronto, she told the audience about the disservice to Charlotte Salomon I had committed in a talk entitled “Trauma and representation curing trauma: Charlotte Salomon.” In the question session I explained that her facts were wrong. Refusing to back down, she replied “I was only creating a space for discourse.” This was apparently sufficient justification for bending the facts to fit her dialectical needs.
I am sure that there is much of value in Griselda Pollock’s book. Too bad she subverts its reliability by omissions and distortions.
© 2018 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist 5 November 2018.
From Mark Krotov, Peter stories
On December 6th Loekie and I will be attending a memorial service in London for Peter Mayer (1936-2018). If I was the originator, editor and producer of the 1981 edition of Leben? oder Theater?, Peter was the publishing enabler, in editions for Allen Lane and Viking. My debt to him, in other regards as well, is immense.
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6 thoughts on “368 Marthe Pécher’s priceless letter and Griselda Pollock’s alternative facts”
Peter Mayer made so much possible in the publishing world. I was honoured to meet him at the English Bookshop in the good old days on Lauriergracht.
Thanks for the update on Charlotte. There seem to be more dubious figures now playing a role in preserving her memory.
Yes, Martin, Peter had close ties of all kinds to Amsterdam. Thanks for your tribute to him.
Your story about Marthe Pécher is very moving
I had the privilege of hanging a selection from “Charlotte: Life or Theater” in 1985 or 86 at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, where I was curator. It is an extraordinary work. The American tour was arranged, if my memory is correct, by a Jewish community center in Baltimore – it was not a museum. Someone there must have had a connection in Amsterdam. It has been interesting to see multiple generations discover her. Some of the work was shown at one of the dokumentas, perhaps 2007 or 2012, and made a big impression there.
The story about Griselda Pollock is discouraging. Dead artists can’t talk back, but when living, Charlotte Salomon made her intentions clear with her title.
Sometimes I think that we should let pictures just speak for themselves, especially when they include the artist’s own words, as Charlotte Salomon’s do. Given the nature of her work, those who take up the pen should think long and hard, and feel even longer and harder, before they add their own words in the name of a superior understanding or knowledge. The words of Marthe Pécher in her letter set the highest standards for any commentator: she was there and she participated in her modest but essential way in the process. Only Charlotte Salomon’s work itself has moved me as much as Marthe Pécher’s testimony.
As someone who is always writing about art, I nonetheless try not to put thoughts into the mind of the artist. Even then, however, art historians cannot avoid imputing intentions to artists and meaning to works of art. Some of us do it more than others. That said, I agree with you that there is a dimension of artistic experience that leaves us alone and on our own with the work. Thank you, Jean-Marie