A Gendered Exploration of Art, Trauma and Memory: Charlotte Salomon’s “Life or Theatre?”

Written by Nuala Murray
Edited by Madeleine Cruickshank

In 1933, a momentous and ultimately catastrophic political shift occurred in Germany in which the promisingly liberal era of the Weimar Republic fell, leaving the nation in the hands of corrupt and monstrous dictator Adolf Hitler. During the Third Reich Jewish-German women, once advancing on Weimar’s progressive path towards both gender and racial liberation, were pushed backward and eventually fatally halted by the political, social and cultural tyranny inflicted on the nation by the Nazi Regime. In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Jewish-German artist Charlotte Salomon composed her extensive work, Life or Theatre? (1940-1942)an autobiographical visual memoir composed of 769 individual paintings. Within this work, Salomon illustrates the specific experience of being both a woman and a Jew in a society which worked vehemently to discriminate against and exclude these marginalized identities. In dominant historical discourse, personal narratives of female Holocaust victims have been deemed unworthy of scholarly pursuit and have been erased in many historical accounts of World War II and the events leading up to the Holocaust. In a parallel manner, art produced by twentieth-century female artists has been kept outside the academic, male-dominated canon of modern art. Through an analysis of individual works in Life or Theatre?, this essay will demonstrate how Charlotte Salomon’s self-representational visual memoir subverts the patriarchal nature of historical discourse, provides Salomon with a medium through which to express the female experience of internal and external trauma, and lastly, functions to challenge the male-oriented structures of modern art and artistry.

I. Women’s Art and Personal Memory: Subverting Patriarchal Discourse

Personal narratives of Holocaust victims are imperative in constructing an understanding of the events that occurred in the Third Reich and the years leading up to the Holocaust. Although there is extensive scholarship on the memoirs of Holocaust victims, there has been a discriminatory lack of attention to female narratives in both academic study and cultural discourse on this topic. As Carol Rittner and John Roth assert in Women and the Holocaust: Different Voices, “Much of the most widely read scholarship — historical, sociopolitical, philosophical and religious — treats the Holocaust as if sexual and gender differences did not make a difference. Thus the particularities of women’s experiences and reflections have been submerged and ignored”1. The insistence of academic scholarship to create one universalized memory of the Holocaust (based primarily, if not solely, on male testimony and experience) undermines the intersectional nature of the oppression experienced by female Jews in the Third Reich. In “Exiled histories: Holocaust and Heimat”  Marsha Meskimmon states, “Women’s art offers a unique praxis through which to consider the connections between embodiment and articulation, beyond the legacy of universal representation and monolithic history. It is not a separate or oppositional ‘women’s history,’ but a nuanced intervention into those singular narratives which so easily permit us to forget”2. As Meskimmon suggests, Salomon’s Life or Theatre? effectively penetrates the monolithic, patriarchal structure of academic history of the Holocaust in order to provide viewers with a unique and expansive perspective on the female experience of genocide.

Figure 1. Charlotte Salomon, 4808, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Throughout Life or Theatre? Salomon comments on the exclusion of women’s narratives in modern art through her visual exploration of female silence. As a literary work as well as visual memoir, Life or Theatre? is largely composed of paintings that are accompanied by textual captions and dialogue. Despite the pervasiveness of words throughout Charlotte Salomon’s work, the artist strategically decides not to include dialogue in a few poignant paintings, effectively rendering her own work (and the characters within it) silent. As Schultz and Timms assert inCharlotte Salomon: Images, Dialogues and Silences,” “These lapses into silence are all the more resonant in contrast to the wordiness of her predominant style”3. In painting 4808 (Figure 1) Salomon depicts herself sitting on her bed alone, dejectedly looking at her suitcase as she prepares to leave Germany. In addition to the silence communicated by the lack of words in this painting, Salomon depicts herself with her hands over her mouth, looking into the suitcase that signifies her cultural baggage as both a Jew and a woman. This visually demonstrates the alienation and silencing that she has been victim to as a member of these marginalized identity groups. Salomon’s linkage of oppression to silence reflects a claim made by Meskimmon in We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism: “We have been unable to hear the different voices of women in history not because women were materially and historically made marginal but because ‘woman’ was structurally denied access to voice”4. Although 4808 specifically illustrates the oppression women faced in everyday life during the Third Reich, Salomon’s visual exploration of female silence still resonates as a powerful critique of the broader lack of female voices in contemporary Holocaust studies and modern art.

The autobiographical nature of Life or Theatre? allows Salomon to resist the patriarchal structure of dominant historical discourse. As Ernst Van Alphen states in “Charlotte Salomon: Autobiography as a Resistance to History,” “The frameworks that women have at their disposal to narrate their autobiographies are the products of a culture dominated by men. This makes it impossible for women to “confess” their stories, because those stories are not self-present to them. Women’s lives can become stories only in the act of representation or narration, that is, in the resistance to and transgression of the unavoidable male frameworks with their male assumptions and prescription”5. Women living in the interwar period did not have academic or official platforms from which to tell their own histories, so they were forced to embrace alternative methods of storytelling, including autobiography and memoir. In Life or Theatre? Salomon resists traditional, male-dominated conceptions of what constitutes historical discourse, presenting visual memoir as an alternative framework for studying Holocaust memory.

II. Self-Representation and Self-Healing: The Gendered Expression of Internal and External Trauma

Life or Theatre? provides a medium for Salomon to work through her own personal trauma in the midst of a deeply oppressive and emotionally tumultuous period in her life. As Christine Conley states in “Memory and Trauerspiel: Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or theater? and the angel of history,” “Life or Theatre presents us with a continual return of the trauma, a repetition that may be understood in Freudian terms as a ‘working through’ of the loss, that is, the work of grief and mourning”6. It is the specific self-representational nature of Life or Theatre? that allows Salomon to come to terms with her own grief through the repetitive artistic expression of trauma. Danielle Knafo states in In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in 20th Century Art, “self portrait creates a special opportunity to examine the artist’s psyche, its relationship to the creative process, and its potential for self-healing.”7.

Figure 2. Charlotte Salomon, 4288, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Throughout Life or Theatre? Salomon repeatedly depicts herself in a state of despair and struggle. Salomon’s visualization of depression and suicide subverts inauthentic representations of female psychology in terms of abjection and hysteria that are often reproduced in works by male artists. Salomon boldly embraces female interiority, painting self-portraits that depict her inner thoughts. Painting 4288 (Figure 2), is a close-up portrait of Salomon’s face with a distressed expression. Behind her head, two figures emerge on either side; her child and her lover. These figures are painted in slightly faded colours in order to give an impression of translucency in contrast to the strong opaque colours of Salomon’s face a technique Salomon employs to indicate these characters’ ghostly and immaterial nature. These figures represent Salomon’s internal anxieties about her relationships with her family members that are seeping out from the insides of her mind. These visuals of psychological distress are underscored by the work’s caption: “’And my husband loves me not. And my child, she needs me not. Why, oh why, am I alive?…So her thoughts ran in her mind.” Additionally, Salomon fills the background of this work with a soft medium blue hue, in order to visually evoke a mood of sadness and despair. By boldly creating a self-representational work, risking denouncement by her male contemporaries and the Nazi Regime itself, Salomon finds a way to artistically work through her own psyche in order to find peace.

Figure 3. Charlotte Salomon, 4179, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

In addition to the representation of her own depression in Life or Theatre?, Salomon further explores the specifically gendered experience of depression and trauma by linking womanhood itself with suicide. Salomon’s mother, grandmother, and several of her aunts suffered from severe depression and eventually all died by suicide. Life or Theatre? visually establishes a relationship between womanhood and suicide by linking all the female characters in the work through their shared fate. When Salomon was nine years old, her mother jumped out a window. Throughout Life or Theatre? Salomon revisits the window motif, using it as an ominous and symbolic background in several paintings. In 4179 (Figure 3), Salomon presents a scene of several women in a field of grass. Salomon locates these women within the frame of a windowpane, and also places a window in the middle of the field. Salomon encodes this scene with representations of femininity, including the female figures wearing dresses, the flowers covering the natural feminized landscape, and the girlish pink and orange hues of the scene in order to visually link the experience of womanhood with that of depression and suicide.

Figure 4. Charlotte Salomon, 4304, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Salomon temporally grounds her autobiographical narrative with references to the increasingly invasive and oppressive Nazi occupation in Berlin in order to situate her own personal trauma (the predominate focus of the work) within the public suffering of Jews in Germany. In 4304 (Figure 4), Salomon depicts a mass of Nazi officers flooding a public square. The aggressive orange she uses for the officers’ uniforms visually demonstrates the menace that these brigades inflicted on the public. Salomon blurs the forms together, rendering them unidentifiable, which signifies the disorienting nature of this period and the inhumanity of the Nazi army. In this painting, a large red flag with a swastika looms over the soldiers and dominates the upper half of the frame, emphasizing the symbol of peace that has been appropriated by the Nazis to represent terror, violence and corruption. Salomon dates the painting overtly in the middle of the work, clearly referencing the parades of 1933, when the Nazi party first came into power. Although Life or Theatre? primarily focuses on her individual experience, Salomon includes a few explicit visual references to Nazi’s takeover of Germany in her work to demonstrate that her own deteriorating internal state was synonymous with the chaotic and depressing social conditions of Berlin at the time.

Figure 5. Charlotte Salomon, 4602, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

III. Resisting the Patriarchal Gaze of Modern Art: Self-Fashioning as Artist

In Life or Theatre? Charlotte Salomon visualizes the experience of being a female artist in a cultural realm dominated by men. In several paintings, Salomon depicts herself showing her artwork to her male lover. In 4602 (Figure 5), Salomon presents her lover with many paintings, and the text reads, “Which one would you like?” Although the painting is a reference to a personal interaction, it visualizes the male gaze that explicitly dominates the art world. In “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” Griselda Pollock addresses the tensions inherent in the female artist’s gaze (building on an argument of scholar Mary Kelly) stating: “the woman who is an artist sees her experience in terms of the feminine position, that is as object of the look, while she must also account for the feeling she experiences as an artist occupying the masculine position as subject of the look”8. Charlotte Salomon negotiates her contradictory position as a woman artist by often rendering herself as the object of the male gaze, but also continuously putting herself into the traditionally male role of artist. Throughout the work, Salomon subversively positions herself as purveyor of the gaze by painting the world around her from her own point of view.

Figure 6. Charlotte Salomon, 4925, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Throughout Life or Theatre?, Salomon continually self-fashions as an artist, subverting the oppressive discourses of art history that perpetuate the idea that creativity and the role of artist are exclusive to the male gender. On the cover of Life or Theatre? (Figure 6) Salomon depicts herself painting, reclaiming the profession and mode of artistic expression that is associated solely with men, and proudly showing her viewers that this is her own story and perspective. In 4835 (Figure 7), the work’s epilogue, Salomon depicts a series of seven women in the act of painting. This scene is foregrounded on a natural landscape that features a body of water and flowers; visual signifiers that work to associate the setting with femininity. In addition to the female painters, a line of women is in the background of the scene. In this epilogue of Life or Theatre? Salomon advocates for women’s reclamation of the act of painting, demonstrating her hopes that her own visual memoir will inspire other women to express their own experiences and feelings of trauma and oppression through art.

Figure 7. Charlotte Salomon, 4835, Life or Theatre? 1942. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

In her prolific visual memoir, Life or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon composes an artistic narrative of her personal experience as a Jewish-German woman in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Salomon boldly presents an authentic and specifically female experience of suffering, trauma, depression and suicide through self-representation, linking her own personal suffering to the large-scale suffering of both women in patriarchal German society and Jews under the Nazi Regime. Salomon uses her autobiographical paintings to subvert monolithic, universalized and patriarchal discourses of both Holocaust history and modern art. In this deeply intimate and courageously revealing collection, Charlotte Salomon demonstrates the importance of women’s art in overcoming personal and discursive oppression

[1] Carol Rittner and John Roth. Women and the Holocaust: Different Voices, xi.
[2] Marsha Meskimmon. “Exiled histories: Holocaust and Heimat” Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics, 24.
[3] Deborah Schultz and Edward Timms. “Charlotte Salomon: Images, Dialogues and Silences.” Word & Image, 275.
[4] Marsha Meskimmon. We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism, 9.
[5] Ernst Van Alphen. “Charlotte Salomon: Autobiography as a Resistance to History” Inside the Visible, ed. C. de Zegher, 68.
[6] Christine Conley. “Memory and Trauerspiel: Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or theater? and the angel of history.” Reading Charlotte Salomon, 96.
[7] Danielle Knafo. “Charlotte Salomon: the art of trauma.” In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art, 21.
[8] Griselda Pollock. “Modernity and Spaces of Femininity.” Vision and Difference: Femininity and the Histories of Art, 86.

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