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“Keep this safe. It is my whole life”: Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre?

Emma Parker

In September 1943 Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish artist and expectant mother, was arrested in Nice and transported by rail to Auschwitz. She was murdered within hours of her arrival. In the final years of her short life, she had undertaken a remarkable and unique project to document her personal history through a combination of images and words, creating over 1300 paintings and sketches. Out of this large body of work, she selected and numbered 784 pages, giving them the intriguing title Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Shortly before her arrest, she entrusted this collection to a family friend, urging them to keep it safe as, she explained, ‘it is my whole life’.

The collection of paintings which Salomon gave up in the weeks before her death is nothing short of a masterpiece. I first stumbled across her name in Griselda Pollock’s lectures on art history and when she was mentioned in a recent seminar on comics, I decided to chase down a published copy of Life? or Theatre? for the first time. In this unique sequence of paintings and words, Salomon demonstrated that she was not only a supremely talented artist, but also capable of representing the fragmentary, intricate workings of memory through narrative. In a single project she created a work of breath-taking ambition. Working in mixed media, she created often-colourful gouaches, combined with a transparent overlay, to create a striking combination of text and image. The narrative stretches back before her birth to 1913, covering her parents’ respective childhoods, and the multiple suicides in the family’s maiden line: Salomon’s own mother committed suicide in 1926, and her grandmother in 1940. Yet threaded in amongst these personal family histories is a wider story of Jewish persecution under Nazi rule. Salomon’s narrative is simultaneously autobiography, testimony, Holocaust narrative, bildungsroman and, in its cinematic use of sequential images, graphic novel.

This astounding piece stands, in many ways, as Salomon’s autobiography, but the tradition of autobiographical writing in Western literature seems ill-suited to contain her extraordinary visual project. The sheer size and narrative complexity of Life? or Theatre? render fixed meanings unstable. Any attempts to easily categorise Salomon’s work are quickly scuppered by her own description of the sequence as a ‘singspiel’ (literal translation: sing-play), a kind of German opera made popular in the late eighteenth century. Salomon’s writing paid homage to this musical form by specifying which tune accompanies each particular scene, using a combination of folk songs and classical arrangements. The result is a blending of text, image and song to convey the overlap of memory with history. We are positioned in relation to this piece simultaneously as viewers, readers and listeners. To say that Life? or Theatre? is an autobiography is to also obscure the innovative combinations of artistic forms that Salomon employed.

Indeed, championing Salomon’s work solely as autobiographical has demonstrably impacted upon her reputation in the UK. Life? or Theatre? was exhibited at the Royal Academy (1998) and has prominently featured in the essays and lectures of Griselda Pollock who, throughout her career, has encouraged further nuanced readings of Salomon’s work. Yet Pollock’s lament that critics are all-too-frequently absorbed by their biographical search for the ‘real’ Charlotte is sadly accurate. Her reputation as an artist remains deeply entangled with the biopics, plays, operas and ballets which focus on the tragedy of her short life. This interest in ‘Charlotte’ looks set to continue into the future, with Bibo Bergeron (director of Shark Tale and The Road to El Dorado) recently announcing his intention to create an animated biopic of Salomon’s life.

What I suggest is that Life? or Theatre? deserves a far richer, deeper understanding than previous biographical readings have allowed. Yes, it is undoubtedly autobiographical, but it constantly experiments with the limits of autobiographical representation, pushing against any preconceived boundaries between autobiography/fiction, image/text and history/individual. In its visual representations of memory and the Holocaust it invites clear comparisons with canonical texts like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and anticipates, as Ariela Freedman has recently noted, many of the broader thematic interests of contemporary comic artists. A reading of Life? or Theatre? as a graphic narrative could, for instance, account for the remarkable relationship between her panels, and how the spaces (the ‘gutters’) between each frame are charged with meaning. Conversely, Salomon’s work also deserves the critical interest of life-writing scholars, particularly in its representations of how identity can be performed alongside history. But, perhaps most importantly, Salomon deserves a wider audience of readers, viewers and listeners to discuss and appreciate her extraordinary work in the twenty-first century.

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Emma Parker is a PhD candidate at the School of English, University of Leeds, where she is researching postcolonial women’s life-writing.

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