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Charlotte Salomon: Death, Life and Theater

Artists' Stories

Charlotte Salomon: Death, Life and Theater

This is not a story with a happy ending. Or a happy beginning for that matter. It’s a story of suicides, sexual abuse, a mystery to solve and art as means to deal with trauma. Ready?

My name is Charlotte

Charlotte Salomon, Autoportrait, 1940, Jewish Historical Museum, charlotte salomon

Charlotte Salomon, Autoportrait, 1940, Jewish Historical Museum

Charlotte was born in 1917 to a well-off Jewish family in Berlin. Her childhood was happy, she had all she needed. But one day her mum didn’t smile back- she fell ill. Did she suffer from depression? Probably. The thing we know is that one day Charlotte’s mum jumped out of the window. And little Charlotte saw her body on the street.

My mother killed herself

Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte is waiting for her mother's angel, Jewish Historical Museum, Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte is waiting for her mother’s angel, Jewish Historical Museum


Her mother was not the first woman in the family to commit suicide. Before, Charlotte’s grandmother’s sister drowned herself in a pond. Then, Charlotte’s grandmother herself followed: she hanged herself. Charlotte remained the last one. “Why do women kill themselves?”, she asked in her unique book-play-series of gouaches.

Should I follow?

Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte dreaming about love, Jewish Historical Museum, charlotte salomon

Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte dreaming about love, Jewish Historical Museum

Charlotte wanted to understand what was happening to the women in her family. Was it a mental disorder? She didn’t want to follow in their footsteps by any chance. She began to compile a complex artwork, a sort of a play or a fairy-tale, in which fictional characters (based on real-life people) experienced events resembling the ones from her own life. She called it Life? Or Theater? I believe that this way Charlotte tried to come to terms with all the trauma she experienced, as well as a tool to solve the mystery of her family.

A murderer?

Charlotte Salomon, Portrait of her dying grandfather, 1943, Jewish Historical Museum, charlotte salomon

Charlotte Salomon, Portrait of her dying grandfather, 1943, Jewish Historical Museum


And one day she did. As the WW2 began, Charlotte’s family had to hide. Yet, one day she and her grandfather were interred for several weeks in the Vichy-run concentration camp of Gurs, in southwestern France. When they were released, they moved in together in Nice. In her notes she wrote about her grandfather’s requests to share “a bed with me,” and his reasoning: “I’m in favor of what’s natural.” Charlotte finally got the answer: her grandfather was the source of whole misery. She decided to stop it: one day she served him an omelette containing poison. Charlotte killed him.

A victim?

Charlotte Salomon, Kristallnacht, Jewish Historical Museum, Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon, Kristallnacht, Jewish Historical Museum

When she decided to marry a man whom she didn’t love, she made one mistake: the marriage documents became the evidence of her existence as a Jew. One day Gestapo knocked on her door and took her away straight to Auschwitz. Since she was pregnant, she did not have a chance to survive. She was gassed in a gas chamber at the age of 26, in 1943. Yet, her work has survived.


The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) with a special exhibition dedicated to her artistic legacy: the artwork Life? Or Theatre? (on display until 25 March 2018).

Want to read another grim story? Have a read about the grey life of Romaine Brooks.

Find out more:

  


Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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