Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Salomon’

Did Charlotte Salomon kill her grandfather? Not so fast, says biographer Felstiner.

Thursday, July 12th, 2018


Mary Felstiner, with her late husband, translator and poet John Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Our post yesterday, “Psssst! She killed her grandfather”  recounted the controversy surrounding a recently revealed confession of artist Charlotte Salomon, one of the great innovative artists of the last century, who was killed at Auschwitz. The “confession” detailed how she murdered her grandfather. But did she? I reached out to Mary Felstiner, the first historian and biographer of Salomon, author of To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon In the Nazi Era (HarperCollins, UC Press), which was awarded the American Historical Association Prize in 1995.

In fact, she is working on an essay on this very subject.

Mary’s judicious thoughts about the startling revelation:

The book where the confession appears…

Charlotte Salomon has gained a considerable reputation in the last year: a major exhibition in Amsterdam; her artwork reproduced by Taschen, in German, French, and English; a stunning full-size art book published by Duckworth/Overlook, including the first translation and notes revealing new material; a capacious and profound work of art criticism by Griselda Pollock, published by Yale University Press. These have prompted riveting recent reviews in The New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, and Women’s Review of Books.

Charlotte Salomon’s 1941-42 artwork, Life? or Theater?, still astonishes onlookers, even in printed reproductions — her thousand-plus paintings create a new form, a visual operetta with staging and music and characters and political commentary. In addition, new interest in Charlotte Salomon has been stimulated by a multi-page painted “letter” she wrote in 1943. It was rediscovered in 2012, or rather, kept under wraps until 2012. Its content has proved shocking. Among deeper, more significant revelations, the artist – obliged to take care of her grandfather – rails against him, and then confesses to feeding him a morphine-based omelette as she writes the “letter.”

This rediscovered material has stretched new interpretations beyond previous historical, biographical, or art-critical accounts of the unprecedented artwork. It is now relabeled also as a story leading to murder by a victim of sexual abuse.

Was her confession truth or art?

A historian and biographer like myself, who decades ago located and interviewed many witnesses to Charlotte Salomon’s life, becomes concerned when interpretations rely principally on the paintings alone. For they are imaginative, theatrical, drawing on reality.

Neither inside or outside these paintings is there any direct evidence of either murder or abuse; and while such crimes are peculiarly hard to document in any specific case, the standard for non-evidentiary interpretation should be this: Are there significant numerous examples (say, of sexual threats and homicide within German Jewish families) from that time, place, and culture, and do these substantiate the interpretation? For instance, historians such as myself and Darcy Buerkle surrounded Charlotte Salomon’s artwork, which transmits a continuous theme of suicide, with serious archival research on suicide and secrecy in her time and place. Equivalent research would need to accompany the new material.

Personally, I tend to believe Charlotte Salomon wanted to put down her grandfather, but the act, if actual, was pressured by her historical context in 1943, and it’s not known if she succeeded in her fantasy or attempt. As for sexual abuse, she did paint one scene of attempted sexual abuse – by an unknown refugee on the road – so I am reluctant to accuse her grandfather without any direct word from the artist, either in an artwork that reveals other highly-charged family secrets, or in a “letter” revealing a more shameful and dangerous “confession.”

Psssst! She killed her grandfather.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Some months ago, I was squished in the backseat of a Lyfft with several other women, trekking back to Palo Alto after a San Francisco Middlebrook salon. One of the women wedged among us that night was Mary Felstiner, the preeminent biographer of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And so she told us in the car the dark postscript to Salomon’s life story: the letter hidden for decades in which she describes her murder of her grandfather. I thought this was an insider’s speculation, and it was, but not now, and not at the time I heard the story on the long road back to Palo Alto. The confessional letter is included in a new edition of Salomon’s complete work, Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play) published last fall. Like the Taschen book, it celebrates the centennial of Salomon’s birth last year.

As I wrote last month, her masterpiece, Life? or Theatre?, may be the first graphic novel. It includes 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent overlays of text, and a narrative of 32K words. In the words of Toni Bentley writing in the New Yorker: “It is a work of mesmerizing power and astonishing ambition. Placed side by side, the ten-by-thirteen-inch paintings would reach the length of three New York City blocks … its uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play, and, now, murder mystery”:


In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the mid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a thirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light. “I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her, from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his voluminous beard—survives.

Painting in the garden at Villefranche-sur-Mer, ca. 1939

Salomon’s letter is addressed, repeatedly, to her “beloved” Alfred Wolfsohn, for whom she created her work. He never received the missive. Nineteen pages of Salomon’s “confession,” as she called it, were concealed by her family for more than sixty years, the murder excised. Fragments of the missing letter were first made public in the voice-over of a 2011 Dutch documentary by the filmmaker Frans Weisz. Salomon’s stepmother had shown him the pages, written in capital letters painted in watercolor, in 1975, and allowed him to copy the text, but, as requested, he had kept them secret for decades.

I hesitated to tell this story in my earlier post, which told of her survival in a family of suicides … significantly, the women around her maternal grandfather, his wife and two daughters (one of them Salomon’s mother, and the other her namesake aunt), killed themselves. She loathed him. How does one casually drop this sort of story in a blogpost? How does one integrate it into one’s thinking of her as an artist?

In a wicked twist of fate, Salomon’s French visa depended on her being her grandfather’s caretaker, so she returned to the Nice apartment where he was living and where, several months later, she poisoned him. “the theatre is dead!” she wrote in her confession as he was dying, a declaration whose resounding Nietzchean echo appears to answer the very question she posed in the title of Life? or Theatre? With this murder, Salomon defied her “inclination to despair and to dying” and chose life.

Read the New Yorker story here. You must.

Postscript on 7/13: Salomon’s preeminent biographer, Mary Felstiner, responds here.

Did she create the first graphic novel? Charlotte Salomon did much more than that.

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

“It has always been easier for women to enter museums in the nude than clothed and wielding a paintbrush.”

The miracle was she survived.

The aunt she was named after died by her own hand. So, she learned years later, did her mother. Her grandmother, great-grandmother, and a number of other relatives died by suicide. But she did not.

And this little girl who had been “not very gifted, not very pretty, not very energetic, rather indolent, lacking in self-control, and egoistic” became one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, with a bold and energetic independence of spirit and style. In unimaginable circumstances, the German Jewish Charlotte Salomon fought the suicidal impulses of generations, responding to “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual.” She opted for the latter, creating Life? or Theater?, a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of gouaches combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.

So she lived until 26, when, as a newlywed several months pregnant, she was taken by the Nazis and gassed at Auschwitz in 1943. Rather than die by her own hand, she was killed at the hands of others. Her tragic biography is also a story of existential triumph.

In some sense, she created the first “graphic novel” – in blues, yellows, and reds, wielded with a fierce exuberance. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote: “Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images … are simply my antidotes to indifference.”

An excerpt from Lisa Appignanesi‘s “Painting on the Precipice” in a recent issue of the New York of Books traces how we got to know her work at all:


It may have been the Salomons’ acquaintance in Amsterdam with Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, that encouraged them to make Charlotte’s work public. The process took time. It was inevitably mired in the family’s grief and desire to forget, a now recognized unwillingness or inability of survivors to share painful matters. The first Salomon exhibition was held in 1961 at the Fodor branch of the Stedelijk Museum. A catalog entry written by Charlotte’s father calls her book “an analytical diary written from memory.” The word “diary,” combined with the book’s association with the Holocaust, led to a shallow analogy between Anne Frank’s moving chronicle of daily life in hiding and Charlotte Salomon’s radical and tormented pictorial examination of her own life and that of Berlin’s Jews from World War I through the rise of Nazism.

Another factor that may have suppressed Salomon’s reputation is the general modernist distaste for art embedded in story, even though in past centuries so much art used to be. Artists such as Paula Rego and Kara Walker have gradually altered our ways of seeing. But the trouble with Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? is that it can’t be divided and sold as individual pieces in the gallery world so effective at creating value.

She speculates that current interest may be fueled by the rise of the graphic novel. “Then, too, after Jean-Michel Basquiat we’ve grown accustomed to bursts of text on image. But it may also be that the very conditions of Salomon’s life have swallowed her work up into the greater story of the Holocaust—ever anxious about the possibilities of its own representation.”

The reason for my own interest tonight is that I was leafing through the excellent new Taschen volume, lavishly presenting and reproducing 450 of Salomon’s most important pieces – according to the publisher, “an unrivalled magnum opus from a great and ambitious artist, overshadowed by her early death, but luminous with her precision, her lyricism, and her courage.”

She famously put entrusted the magnum opus to the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is a life, though light years beyond autobiography – and somehow it even makes the term  Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art,” sound chilly and merely aesthetic. It is also a powerful reminder, should we need one, that a life looks very different driving forward than it does in the rearview mirror.

Bookplate porn: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I miss them.  You know what I mean:  those exquisite bookplates you used to run across when you peeked into the top-notch books in the finest libraries or secondhand bookstores. I miss them, even though I admit I have grown attached to the practical “From the Library of …” embosser I use to efficiently process my books and ward off potential book thieves. It gets the job done, and looks dignified and restrained – but it’s cheating, really. Not the classy way to go.  This is.  You know it when you see it.

We’ve written before about bookshelf porn – and we’ve talked about library porn and bookstore porn.  But there’s something intimate and cozy about bookplate porn.  You can’t, after all, imagine yourself toddling off with the University of Coimbra General Library in Portugal, but you can fantasize taking home one of the beauties pictured on this post, slipping one in-between the pages of a book for quiet, solitary delectation later.

Here are a few to make you drool.  I have seen a few of them before while browsing in the Stanford Libraries (they really are some of the best I’ve seen),  but someone pointed out a whole website of them here.  I only got to the “L”s before I found more than enough to fill a blog post on a slow Friday night.

This is how it works for the Stanford Libraries:  A bookplate is created when a donor gives a substantial and important collection, or  when a donor starts an endowed fund for library materials. Lisa Haderlie Baker, whose blog is here, has created most of Stanford’s  bookplates over the past decade or so.  (Check out the blog – she makes gorgeous cards as well.)

Given my propensity for butterflies, birds, and bees in this sampling, it’s obvious that spring is on my mind. Yet I reserve a special affection for the high-concept bookplate at right, with its almost-Tibetan clouds.  And the Charlotte Salomon bookplate is an obvious favorite, we’ve written about her before.

Here’s a thought.  This is too much fun.  If you send me digital forms of your own favorite bookplates, we’ll do a follow-up post with your picks.

But I bet you can’t match these.  Go ahead.  Try.


Charlotte Salomon’s “antidotes to indifference”

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Yesterday I was one of the very last visitors to the six-month exhibition of nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon‘s gouaches at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  I almost overlooked the exhibition, ongoing since March 31, until John Felstiner reminded me during a reception last week.

I’m glad I caught it on its last day.  It’s an extraordinary show, of an extraordinary woman.

For those who don’t know the background, Salomon (1917-43) was a young German Jewish artist, hiding in the south of France after the Nazi takeover. Between 1940 and 1942, she worked feverishly, often without stopping to eat or sleep, to produce about 1300 paintings.

She hummed as she painted, and the gouaches often include titles or scraps of the music that accompanies these snapshots of her life.

They often, medieval fashion, show several thematically related or  sequential scenes on the same sheet of paper. Sometimes, like photography, she repeats the same image over and over on a sheet.  The total result was Life? or Theater? A Play with Music.

The Nazis caught up with her in 1943.  The 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz, and probably killed the same day.

Her tragic story is not only an artistic triumph, however, but an existential one:  Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, and a number of other relatives died by their own hands.  In unimaginable circumstances, she fought the suicidal impulses of generations, choosing to do something “utterly crazy” – a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of paintings combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.  She famously put the series in the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is more than that, really: it aims at Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art.”

Mary and John Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I have Mary Felstiners biography, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era – part of my research for my article on both the Felstiner’s examination of “creative resistance” during the Holocaust.  But when I got home, I thumbed through it’s pages with a new understanding.  I hadn’t realized quite how gripping Mary’s book is.  I won’t try to review a book I haven’t read, but here are a few words from the reviewers:

“Ms. Felstiner tells this harrowing tale clearly and emotionally. . . . Her account will spread the word about a talented and tragic hostage to her family and her times.” – Peter Gay, New York Times Book Review

“Something truly remarkable, a work of art in its own right and a masterpiece in the field of Holocaust studies. . . . At times, To Paint Her Life achieves a certain songlike quality and poetic grandeur it’s a fugue of art and history, love and pain, sexuality and politics – and it reaches a shattering crescendo in the very last, speculative passage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

The Salomon paintings at the Contemporary Jewish Museum return to Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum.  I bought the catalogue – by the last day of the show, it was half off the listed price.

It includes a short essay by Jonathan Safran Foer, describing his discovery of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam.  He writes that “even more than praise, Life? or Theater? demands creation”:

Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images I’ve selected for this exhibition [for the catalogue] are those I find myself most often returning to when nothing feels worth writing. They do not make sense as a thematic or stylistic group. They are simply my antidotes to indifference.