Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theater?

Exhibition banner outside Musee Massena

I recently got back from a vacation, part of which was in Nice, France. One of my "must-do" items for the town was seeing the Musee Massena, a historic villa which is now a museum of Nice history, centering on the belle epoque. Artifacts include a crown of Empress Josephine. It's all very decadent.

The portrait gallery.

The museum also hosts rotating exhibits on the top floor. When my sister and I visited, the exhibit happened to be on Charlotte Salomon, an artist I'd never heard of before. Born in Berlin in 1917, the young painter was sent in 1938 by her father and stepmother to live with grandparents in the South of France, where they hoped she would be safe from the Nazis. While there, Salomon struggled with depression and its legacy in her family: her mother, grandmother, and other relatives had committed suicide. To survive, she decided to throw herself into an epic project: Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater?: A Song-Play), a collection of hundreds of paintings that form a narrative about depression, her family, art, her first love, and the specter of the Third Reich.

Suddenly, the riches in the rooms below lost their luster.

On display at Musee Massena

Salomon gave Leber? oder Theater? to a friend for safekeeping before being deported with her husband, Alexander Nagler, to Auschwitz, where she was killed. She was 26 years old and five months pregnant.

Her story is a gut-punch, especially when paired with her work. In her gouache paintings, one feels her joy for and dedication to art, her thrill of young love, her fear and resilience in the face of terrible odds.

My favorite from the show - Salomon practices her art

Salomon uses an alter ego, "Charlotte Kann," to tell her life story. The pieces displayed at the Musee Massena chronicle her early childhood; her grandmother's depression and suicide; her opera singer stepmother (Paula Salomon-Lindberg, called Paulinka in Leben? oder Theater?); her love affair with and artistic mentoring by her stepmother's vocal coach, Alfred Wolfsohn (called Amadeus Daberlohn); and her exile to France.

The show is full of striking images: a soul ascending to heaven and then descending to Earth for a visit, an open window after a suicide, Salomon diligently painting while surrounded by the bright objects of her study, lovers parting on a darkened street, and Nazis on parade - a vision sickeningly familiar to us by way of history books, but contemporary to her. Salomon's art has boldness and urgency.

What also struck me about the work was its format. With its mishmash of standalone paintings, pages with panels, and text, Leben? oder Theater? could certainly be called a graphic memoir, decades before Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, or even Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.

One of the pages on display at Musee Massena

Part of travel is the unpredictability of what you'll learn, and I'm grateful to have learned about Salomon.

Charlotte Salomon: Vie? ou Theatre? is at the Musee Massena until May 24, and Leben? oder Theater?'s permanent home is the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which has made the entire work available online.

Three pages at Musee Massena

Image info:
Exterior of Musee Massena: my photo
Interior of Musee Massena: my photo
Painting of Nazis: my photo of the Massena exhibit
Painting of Salomon painting: WikiMedia Commons
Painting with panels: Jewish Historical Museum, image 4235
Series of three paintings: my photo of the Massena exhibit

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