“Keep these safe. They are my whole life.” Charlotte Salomon
July 18, 2017 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Over a period of less than two years before being murdered by the Nazis, Charlotte Salomon completed Life? or Theater? (Leben? oder Theater?), a massive work in images and writing, to document her life. Before embarking on this project, she had discovered that no fewer than eight of her family members had committed suicide. Shortly before her arrest, she handed Life? or Theater? over to Georges Moridis, who had encouraged her to paint, with the words: “Keep these safe. They are my whole life.” In a new article, Toni Bentley discusses the work in the light of the Salomons' family history and, particularly, Salomon's written and drawn confession that she killed her grandfather.
posted by BibiRose (16 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Read the New Yorker Article last night, which is amazing. I'm surprised I've not heard of her before.
posted by Artw at 7:05 AM on July 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Could probably use a trigger warning for reference to sexual abuse. I had a sinking feeling about the whole murder thing before reading the story, but--yeah. It's tragic that they felt they had to conceal that for all that time, because given that, it certainly shouldn't be any slight on her work or character.
posted by Sequence at 8:03 AM on July 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Salomon was a genius. I bought a copy of possibly the first publication in English of Leben oder Theatre in the 1980s, which I found in a used book store (it cost the enormous sum of $28). Even incomplete and containing perhaps a quarter (and eighth?) of the whole piece, the power of the images and the obvious life force they contain was overwhelming. I'm very happy to see her work being more widely recognized... and really, I don't blame her for feeding her grandfather an overdose, given the circumstances.
posted by jokeefe at 8:23 AM on July 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wow. It looks like the grandfather had at least 3 suicides on his conscience. The horror she must have felt on being told that she had to live with him again, when she'd finally gotten out. No wonder she poisoned him within 3 months of moving back in. Veronal Omelette indeed. I would have poisoned the fucker too.
posted by widdershins at 8:53 AM on July 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Incredible work! I hadn't heard of this woman (although a few of her paintings look vaguely familiar). This connects with the Sylvia Plath piece recently for me. What they achieved, despite the awful circumstances of their lives, at such a young age, is incredible.
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:29 AM on July 18, 2017

Yeah, I'm not sure I would call it murder, as the article does - more like self-defense.
posted by corb at 9:38 AM on July 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by larrybob at 9:41 AM on July 18, 2017

Reminds me of D. M. Thomas's novel The White Hotel
posted by growabrain at 9:51 AM on July 18, 2017

There were things I didn’t like about Bentley’s framing, to the point where I hesitated to post this. As corb points out: “murderer” doesn’t seem quite the word—highlighting it that way was kind of crummy and sensationalistic in my view. Also, Bentley seems to take the stance that Salomon needs to be rescued from being considered a “Holocaust artist,” as if that diminishes her somehow. But that’s what the Holocaust did—it engulfed many people, individual ability, life circumstances and all. Anyway, to me, Salomon’s work speaks eloquently because of its circumstances.

I’ve always found Bentley a difficult, provocative writer. But she is an artist—with a career in ballet before she started writing-- and I think her idiosyncratic views are hard-won and worth at least considering.
posted by BibiRose at 10:45 AM on July 18, 2017

i've heard about her before and always meant to read it up properly, thanks
posted by maiamaia at 2:27 PM on July 18, 2017

I saw the Life? or Theater? exhibit when it came to the Art Gallery of Ontario in the late nineties. It was well worth viewing.
posted by orange swan at 4:47 PM on July 18, 2017

What an incredible frustrating stupid infuriating horrific tragic end, that after everything Salomon did to choose life, the Nazis murdered her.

I had never heard of her, and that's its own shande.

What a bizarrely written article though. in addition to the coy drama around the 'murder' and sexual abuse.

What is the perverse idea of calling this Jewish-and-murdered-for-it woman a "teutonic Scherherezade"? When Teutonic basically conjures the German, aggressively non-Jewish archetype, and Scheherezade actually managed to save her life through her stories.

And then the two portraits of Salomon's avatar that Bentley describes at the end of the article. The first one is somehow a "distillation of youthful femininity," while the second, so similar like an echo, is a "nymph", and also a "Hebraic sister to Botticelli’s sea-born Venus," oh, and also an "androgynous creature."

I was disturbed on and off throughout the article and finished kind of disgusted. Who is this person?
posted by Salamandrous at 6:56 PM on July 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

What is the perverse idea of calling this Jewish-and-murdered-for-it woman a "teutonic Scherherezade"?

yeah, also this: She cradles a paintbrush and canvas close to her body, as if emanations from her belly, the woman and her work inseparable is 100 percent made up with no relation to the actual image it purports to describe. if she wanted to paint them symbolically radiating out of her uterus she could have and would have.

it is not enough to pay her the respect of calling her Salomon and not Charlotte; you have to actually dispense with the over-intimate, sentimentalizing possessiveness that leads men and women alike to talk about women artists this way. Bentley notices when other people do it but it doesn't stop her from doing it herself.

Everything factual in the article, though, is really good. although I deeply dislike the way the murder is presented. say up front that he abused her and she was fully justified, for heaven's sake. this isn't a short story with a clever twist at the end.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:44 PM on July 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

The story is incredible, and so is the art. I haven't been to visit an installation of the drawings, but I used to have a splendid edition of all or most of them. Visitors would open the book and just fall into it for as long as you'd let them.
posted by BibiRose at 8:13 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is amazing stuff - thankyou for introducing me to her work. I love the scale of it, so enormous yet so personal.

One thing I don't understand from any of the links is if the confession was part of Life? Or Theatre?, or if it was a separate thing included in the packages given to Moridis for safe-keeping. Either way I certainly don't blame her family for keeping it secret, if it had been revealed along with the rest of the art it would have completely overshadowed it for no good reason.
posted by harriet vane at 4:16 AM on July 20, 2017

My understanding, which could be wrong, is that the confession was a separate letter, not part of the manuscript.

By the way, there is an online archive of the drawings at the Jewish Museum site.
posted by BibiRose at 6:15 AM on July 20, 2017

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