Academic journal article Criticism

Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theater? a Melodrama?

Academic journal article Criticism

Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theater? a Melodrama?

Article excerpt

Since Charlotte Salomon's Leben? oder Theater? Lin Singespiel first started receiving sustained critical attention in the 1970s, the work has eluded categorization by both genre and medium.1 This narrative series of 769 finished gouaches and nearly 500 additional paintings tells the fictionalized story of Charlotte Salomon's family history in 1913 through 1942. Salomon combines word, image, and music in both an echo and a revision of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.2 Text is initially incorporated through semitransparent pages that provide exposition and dialogue for the images, which Salomon taped to the front of many of the paintings. In the later images, the words are usually written directly onto the pictures. The painting series also provides musical cues, marking the sound track for Salomon's drama, and invokes the stage by announcing theatricality as both form and content; the opening picture presents the parting curtains of a stage, and a full cast of characters, like a playbill. This intermedial, astonishingly ambitious artwork, composed in exile and uncertainty in 1941-42 following Salomon's detention and release from Gurs internment and refugee camp, straddles mediums but belongs to no single one. Without true precedent, it was cast out into an abyssal future.

In her prologue, Salomon calls Life? or Theater? (hereafter, LOT) her "strange work," which "must-like the creation as a whole so it seems to me-remain shrouded in darkness."3 The definition of this strange work has subsequently since proved similarly elusive. First studied by Holocaust scholars and art historians, LOT has no real equivalent in Shoah (Holocaust) narrative or in painting. Though Michael Steinberg reaches back to Amedeo Modigliani's almond-eyed long-necked portraits and ahead to Mark Rothko's transcendent color washes, and Nanette Salomon notes striking similarities to Ludwig Bemelmans's fanciful miniaturizations, critics agree that there are no close parallels for Salomon's incorporation of multiple temporalities in a single panel, or for the proliferating "talking heads" that she uses in the later sections for long dialogues and monologues, or for the sheer scope and particular ambition of the series and its extended narrative reach.4 The trajectory of Salomon's painting series approximates a Kunstlerroman since it narrates the sequence of events that led to Salomon's formation as an artist, but its central use of image and spectral music, named but not heard, makes the experience of reading it quite different than that of reading a novel. Perhaps Salomon's strange invention comes closest to the contemporary form of the confessional graphic memoir-a genre that has come to prominence in only the last two decades-in its seriality, its representation of time as space, its "autobifictionalographical" qualities, and its complex mobilization of word and image.5 Griselda Pollock writes that LOT is "one of the twentieth century's most challenging art works. . . . Yet, I, for, one am not sure that I can know fully what I am looking at."6 Nearly sixty years after Salomon entrusted her paintings to a family friend with the words "Keep this safe: It is my whole life,"7 we are still learning to be her readers.

The emerging body of criticism on Salomon's work is rich in historical and theoretical readings, especially those informed by trauma theory and memory studies, but is sparse and suppositional on genre. As Griselda Pollock writes,

Life? or Theater? performs its restaging through a work of visual art, with its avant-garde multiplicity or word, text, and image. Nonetheless, it presents a major problem for canonical art history as well as for the new forms of cultural, feminist, and Jewish studies. It transgresses even the expected boundaries of new interdisciplinary formations in its unexpected conjunctions.8

Pollock later continues, "So huge and complex a single artwork as this constantly escapes any attempt to summarize its tone and convey its hypercharged affectivity interspersed with troubling irony. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.