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Images impossible to forget

· ​Artists ·

Leben? oder Theater? [A Life? Or a Drama?]. This is the title of a collection of 800 paintings by Charlotte Salomon in tempera on paper. The collection is kept in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and was exhibited – for the first time in Italy – at Milan at an anthological exhibition organized by Bruno Pedretti. He is also the author of a novel about Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte, la morte e la fanciulla, [the young girl and death], published in 1998 by Giuntina and now reissued by Skira. In 2015 another novel about Charlotte Salomon was also translated by Mondadori, Charlotte, by David Foenkinos, which came out in France in 2014 and became a real best seller.

Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish woman from Berlin who fled to France in 1938 and later died later at Auschwitz in 1943 when she was 26 years old, created these works as a sort of autobiography during her stay in France from 1940 to 1942. She left them in the care of a friend before being arrested and deported. After the war this friend returned them to her father who had survived the Shoah, who in his turn donated them to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. From the 1990s Charlotte Salomon was rediscovered, her works were displayed in the major European cities and were represented and set to music in the theatre and in films.

A life or a drama, as the title says? Perhaps both, since in Charlotte’s life fiction and reality really seem to be one. Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte was the daughter of an assimilated upper class Jewish family. Even without renouncing their Judaism, like many Jewish families of that time the Salomons celebrated Christmas. Charlotte’s father was a doctor and a university professor, her mother, Franziska, a musician who sang Schubert’s Lieder to her little girl and spoke to her of angels. She committed suicide when Charlotte was nine years old. There were numerous suicides in her mother’s family, especially among the women. Her mother’s sister too, after whom Charlotte was named, had committed suicide when she was 18 and her grandmother was also to commit suicide in 1940.

Unaware that her mother’s death was a suicide, Charlotte lived for years more or less peacefully until the advent of Nazism. Her father had remarried. His second wife was a famous opera singer of whom Charlotte was very fond and their home was frequented by intellectuals, artists and musicians. Music in particular was ever present in the girl’s life and imagination.

Everything changed, of course, in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The first years were very hard, her father lost his job and her step-mother was prevented from singing, except for audiences of Jews. Charlotte, however, thanks to her talent, succeeded in gaining admission to the Vereinigten Staatschulen für frei un angewandte Kunst [United States School for Free and Applied Arts]. In 1938 her father was arrested and spent a period in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen from which he emerged a broken man.The family decided to send Charlotte, who was not yet of age, to her maternal grandparents in the South of France, to Villefranche-sur-Mer not far from Nice, to stay at the large villa of Ottilie Moore, an American who offered hospitality to many refugees from Germany. The parting was very painful for Charlotte, also partly because it separated her from the man with whom she had fallen in love.

When the war broke out in 1939 it separated the family once and for all. For Charlotte these were difficult years as exile always is, but without any personal danger, at least until 1943. Nice was in the Italian zone and there were no deportations. From the Nazi occupation of Holland, at the outbreak of the war, Charlotte had no news of her father or of her stepmother who had gone as refugees to Amsterdam and who, however, survived the war. In 1940 her grandmother also committed suicide and in these dramatic circumstances Charlotte got to learn the truth about her mother’s death. The situation deteriorated: her grandfather also died and Ottilie Moore left Villefranche to return to the United States, taking a few Jewish children with her. In June 1943, Charlotte married Alexander Nagler, an Austrian Jew who was a friend of Ottilie Moore.

Charlotte was expecting a baby when, after the armistice of 8 September, even the zone under Italian occupation fell under Nazi domination. It was Alois Brunner, a close collaborator of Eichmann, who led the hunt for Jews. Following a denunciation, Charlotte and Alexander were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Her husband had false documents which described him as an Arian but he declared that he was a Jew and suffered the consequences of so doing. Charlotte, pregnant, was sent to the gas chamber on her arrival on 10 October 1943. Alexander was to die after hardships a few months later. However, the Nazi Brunner escaped. After the end of the war he sought refuge in Syria, becoming an adviser to the regime. The informant too (perhaps a woman) was never to be arrested.

The whole of Charlotte’s artistic production is included in this autobiography, in these 800 gouaches in only three colours with millions of nuances, yellow, blue and red, dense with scripture and songs in which she tells of herself. They are extraordinary images; looking at them takes one’s breath away and submerges one completely, like a piece of music, in their atmosphere and vivid colours.

The story begins with her childhood, with her childhood dreams, with her mother, and then continues to her French exile and to the threshold of her deportation. Here she is as a child, in bed at her mother’s side, and alone while waiting for her dead mother to return in angel’s robes to tell her about her life after death. Here she is in an infinite number of self-portraits, while painting, at the seaside, while reading and while listening to music. Here she is in love in Berlin, and here are the thousands of versions of the face of her lost love repeated. Here are the Nazis, the crowds besotted by Hitler and the red flags with the black swastika of 30 January 1933, Hitler’s ascent to power. Here is the violated statue of Heine and the uniforms of the Nazis. Here the empty suitcase of the exile. Here the devastated body of her grandmother after the fall. Here the sea and the sky of the French Riviera, azure and sky blue.

The last page shows her from behind in a bathing costume while she paints the sea. These are extraordinary images from which it is difficult to detach oneself and which are impossible to forget. 

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 20, 2020