After being shown throughout the world during the past twenty years, Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre? A Play With Music has finally come to New York. Painted and written in a furious surge of creativity against the encroachment of the Holocaust, the work is part diary, part memoir, part fable, part Gesamt Kunstwerk (“total work of art”). Art historian Griselda Pollock sees its 769 gouaches, texts, and instructions for musical accompaniment as a modern Haggadah, “a story at whose hidden heart is again suffering and slavery, and its making is a modern journey through the desert of death to a means of re-creation.” Pollock, like other scholars, is stunned by the work’s complexity. “I for one still do not know what I am looking at,” she writes. With the exhibition of roughly half the gouaches at the Jewish Museum, New Yorkers can enter one of modernism’s tantalizing and unsettling artistic worlds.
Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917 and raised in a remarkable and privileged German-Jewish milieu that believed in the transformative and transcendent power of art, literature, theater, and music. Her father was a prominent surgeon, her stepmother, Paula Lindberg, a famous contralto. The family circle included Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, the composer Paul Hindemith, and the architect Erich Mendelsohn. Because of her connections and her reserved, unthreatening manner, not to mention her talent, she was admitted to the State Art Academy in Berlin, where no more than 1.5 percent of the students could be Jewish.
After Kristallnacht in 1938 and the brief internment of her father, she was sent to live with her grandparents on the French Riviera. Soon after the beginning of World War II, however, her grandmother killed herself and Charlotte learned of the suicides of other women in her family, including that of her mother, when she was nearly 9 (she had been told her mother died of influenza). She and her broken and surly grandfather spent three weeks in a French concentration camp, an experience so indescribable for her that there is no trace of it in her work. In 1941 and 1942 – by the sun and a blue sea that she sometimes seems literally to be drawing with, far from her family and the tumult of Berlin, humming as she worked – she painted 1,325 gouaches. In 1943, shortly after reducing the number to 769 and giving them to a local doctor (“Take good care of it; it is my whole life”), she was shipped to Auschwitz, where, four months pregnant, she was immediately shot.
The narrative – pared down for this exhibition by London’s Royal Academy of Arts – is divided into three sections: prologue (personal and family history up to 1930), main part (1937-39), and epilogue (the years in France). The cast of characters is based on actual people. Salomon becomes Charlotte Kann, her stepmother Paulinka Bimbam. Alfred Wolfsohn, a charismatic and melodramatic teacher and writer, whose theories about personal and mythological journeys were as indispensable to her as his belief in her talent, becomes “Amadeus Daberlohn, prophet of song.”
These paintings are unimaginable without German Expressionism, which in 1937 the Nazis had declared “degenerate.” Salomon painted personal and political history as she felt it. Sometimes her colors and gestures seem to have minds of their own; many gouaches are dominated by faces and hands. But her watercolors have none of the aggressiveness of German Expressionist paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, and Alexej von Jawlensky. And many of her bodies, like her faces, lack weight; as if they might disappear without a trace, or were already ghosts. The spaces, too, lack substance, which contributes to the sense of placelessness and exile.
Salomon’s range is astonishing. She scrawls words over a number of her nine-by-twelve-inch sheets of paper, packs others with multiple images of one person, paints a single human bulk in a way that reveals her love of Michelangelo. Some gouaches are highly deliberate; in others, her breathless, notational gestures suggest a world in which measure is not possible. For the most part, her palette is upbeat. Pollock writes that she focused on the primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – because she wanted her work to “be the antithesis” of the French concentration camp, “with only the strayest trace of its sewage brown fascist tones.” But the thinness of the watercolors and the preference for middle rather than full tones renders the enthusiasm and inventiveness tenuous. These paintings seem in constant danger of evaporating.
For whom did Salomon make this work? Given her love for Wolfsohn, she certainly made it, in part, for him. Given its attention to music, she probably also made it to appeal to her diva stepmother, whose close relationship with Wolfsohn provided a human nexus she longed to enter. She clearly made the work for herself, to come to terms with trauma. “Dear God, please don’t let me go mad,” she scribbled across one orange-smeared gouache in which Charlotte Kann, tormented by the suicides, presses her hands to her head. But Salomon also wanted “to cleanse the world,” to use art to help others face history and begin again. She did not want to be forgotten, and she did not want us to forget.
The current revival of interest in Color Field painting owes much to Kenneth Noland. The titles of his recent “Circles” series at the Ameringer/Howard Fine Art begin with the word Mysteries. All the canvases include concentric circular rings breathing within a square canvas. Many colors are pastels, which seems new for him. The paint is applied in three ways: The ground color – for example, the yellow evident in the first and third rings in Mysteries: Change – which always seems to move from the center to the edges, is applied with a roller. The uniform field of color that seems to start at the edges and move toward the center is sprayed on. Two or more of the rings, plus the harder, very un-pastel-like red, yellow, or blue circle in the center of many of these paintings, are painted with a brush. Against the transparent spread of the rolled and sprayed paint, the touch of the brush has an intimately physical yet almost cosmic charge. The result of the interplay of colors, forms, and techniques is not the equilibrated flatness of Noland’s earlier versions, but rather a pulsating, throbbing dynamism that suggests a new being or a planet in the process of emerging. Through an intense concentration on the language of painting, Noland offers an experience of nature that verges ever closer to the sublime.
Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?
At the Jewish Museum through March 25.
At Ameringer/Howard Fine Art through January 20.
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