Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory By Griselda Pollock
New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 2018, $60.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
What desire shapes our scholarship?” Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock poses this question in the preface to her tour de force study of Berlin-born artist Charlotte Salomon’s masterpiece, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Salomon, who was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1917, exiled to France in 1938, and gassed to death in Auschwitz in October 1943, when she was five months pregnant, created her uncategorizable magnum opus—ultimately consisting of 769 paintings and fifteen additional pages of painted words selected from over 1,000 gouaches—from late 1940 to early 1942. Pollock describes Salomon’s work as “one of the most challenging, enigmatic and demanding artworks of the twentieth century”; her record of sitting for years with the incredible story told in words and images proves it. As she explains in a note appended to the preface, “A Word of Personal Explanation,” she spent more than fifteen years preparing to write this book, lecturing, researching, and touring, interviewing and discussing, thinking and writing. After two earlier failed attempts at addressing, in a full-length monograph, an artwork that “transgresses our existing categories of knowledge” and an undertaking that “calls for another mode of writing,” Pollock has finally completed Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory.
Pollock is not the first to find herself taken in for prolonged periods by Salomon’s legacy. As her contemporary, Jacqueline Rose, writes in Women in Dark Times, “You do not exactly look at, or read, Life? or Theatre? You enter into its world.” Other critics, scholars, and historians to submerge themselves in this incredible work, and its attendant, eventually annihilating, historical moment, include the historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. Her influential 1994 biography, To Paint Her Life—what she describes as a “personified history”—was the culmination of over ten years of research. Felstiner ’s book itself was partly made possible by Judith Belinfante (director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam from 1976 to 1998), and her assistant, Eva Orenstein. Having acquired Salomon’s archive for the museum in 1971, the pair spent almost two months laying out all of Salomon’s pages on the floors of an empty house and trying to make sense and order of the hundreds of paintings, some double-sided and many including overlays. While the exact structure of the visual narrative will always remain indefinite (and, to make things more unwieldy still, particularly when it comes to exhibitions, many of the images reference suggested musical accompaniments), it is largely due to these women’s efforts that scholars, artists, novelists, filmmakers, and lay-audiences can find themselves in proximity to the work.
In 2017, in the wake of its burgeoning accessibility, Overlook Press published the full narrative in English, and Salomon’s achievement has spawned a number of inspired texts. These include movies (two by Dutch director Frans Weisz), plays, art and literary criticism, additional historical inquiries, and a 2014 prize-winning novel, titled, simply, Charlotte, by French writer David Foenkinos. But Pollock does not regard all afterlives of Life? or Theatre? to be worthy of her analysis. (“I couldn’t read it,” she says of Foenkinos’s book.) Partway through the novel, Foenkinos’s narrator encounters Salomon’s artwork in Berlin, and he experiences “the feeling of having finally found what I was looking for. The unexpected climax to all my vague longings.” Pollock’s intervention is a direct response to those, like Foenkinos, via his narrator, who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis”—those readers, in other words, that confuse artistry for confession, that overlay Salomon’s life—and death—upon her art, obscuring its constitution, the exceptional coordination of philosophies, constructed affects, and aesthetics that is Life? or Theatre?
Pollock insists that “Life? or Theatre? is not a narrative of what happened.” She connects this slippage between biography and work, a common and often gendered blunder that, for instance, leads many to refer to women authors and artists by their first names and to read their works primarily through the lens of biography. “I can see why it is so much easier to ask and then imagine
“Pollock's intervention is a direct response to those who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis.”
‘who Charlotte Salomon is’ than it is to seek to know ‘what Leben? oder Theater? is,’” Pollack concedes. How then does one approach this complicated and important work that is so entrenched in its own history, a great artwork whose existence is as improbable as its craft is astonishing?
Pollock’s rich, provocative, and complicated study is built from a prologue and introduction followed by twelve chapters, each of which employs an individual image as a starting point to tackle this important modernist work from different but connective angles. She looks not only to the individual pieces in themselves, the works of art, music, philosophy, film, and literature that they dexterously reference, the architecture of each word-image construction, but also to the way the narrative as a whole coheres, the different visual and lyrical rhymes and rhythms that cycle throughout the prodigious, densely packed text.
One chapter, for example, opens with a spectacularly bright and fluid image depicting Salomon’s protagonist, Charlotte Knarre, painted in several different configurations while working at her easel. Pollock notes the signifiers referenced in these images—Van Gogh’s boots and sunflowers, Cézanne’s fruit and water jugs—and she draws parallels to a series of images depicting Knarre doing artwork at a desk, details culled from a variety of scenes. The images are brought together in service of this exploration of becoming an artist in these particular circumstances, of a Jew coming of age and diving into her calling, first during the Weimar years and then in the midst of the rise of the National Socialist Party. “What was it to be Jewish and a woman entering the field of art at the moment at which modernist art—identified with Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Modigliani, Chagall, Nolde and Picasso ... would be outlawed?” Beginning with these investigations into the work itself, Pollock is able to extend outward, to examine, in this case, the two famous art exhibitions, one opening in Munich in 1937, the next opening a day later in Berlin, that set the stage for what the Nazis hoped would be an “aesthetic revolution.” Pollock turns to mirror a Vincent Van Gogh painting alongside a detail from one of Salomon’s paintings, allowing us to see, in this conjunction, not only the ways that the referenced works of art can help us read Salomon, but, perhaps more compellingly, how Salomon can help us reread these canonical figures of art history. As Pollock describes,
That an artist ... could appropriate as a possible position for her own creative defiance not only the inventiveness of Van Gogh’s psychologization of space but also the tenacious restaging of remembered places figured through an untrained but intuitively creative freedom with color and drawing helps us create different questions to ask of modernist painting and to map out different pathways through its many possibilities.
In Pollock’s hands, Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? becomes more than a work of Holocaust memorialization, or a testament to Jewish life in Germany during those troubled times (what Pollock calls “before Auschwitz”), or a personal history put down on paper. Instead, she unframes the work, to unmask its dynamism, to call attention to its force as an uncategorizable, deeply complicated construction. “The artist invented a form of art,” she persuasively argues.
Salomon’s work is built around an uncannily disastrous narrative. The text is the story of Charlotte Knarre’s learning, in the wake of witnessing firsthand her grandmother’s death by suicide, that a number of deaths in her family history also happened in this way. Though she had been told as a child that her mother died of influenza, she finds out, while living in exile in France with her grandparents, that her mother and the aunt that she was named after both also died by suicide, among others in the family. In fact, the work opens with the young painter imagining these early scenes for herself. “Salomon invented a theatre of memory,” Pollock writes, explaining that these were “not memories of, but memory for, those otherwise unremembered.” Pollock sees the work, in the end, as situated somewhere between what she calls “the Event and the Everyday,” bounded by “a philosophy of life-affirmation through creativity and music and an interrogation of the fragility of gendered subjectivities within the domestic realm.” The two are inextricably entwined, and Pollock imagines this interrogation as the occasion through which Salomon-the-artist potentially learns to see through the cracks of a henceforth mysterious, and disguised, family history, a space where it becomes possible to grasp the ways in which individual stories conjoin (in complex and often difficult-to-bear ways) with broader familial, political, and cultural narratives and networks.
About halfway through Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, in the space of a chapter focused on what Pollock describes as “after affects,” a chapter focused on the images in Life? or Theatre? in which the artist reimagines, in graphic detail, her own mother’s death by suicide, Pollock suddenly and unexpectedly engages with the desires behind her own scholarly endeavor. “I have been drawn to Leben? oder Theatre? for many reasons,” she writes. “One compelling factor is a long-standing personal and scholarly interest in maternal loss.” Though seemingly buried in her meticulous and painstaking analysis of the text, Pollock’s admission, once revealed, echoes back through the book; it seems she has been reading, just like the artist had once been painting, in order to know what she can never fully know, to explore the inexplicable absences haunting her world. In Darcy C. Buerkle’s vast and similarly affecting book of scholarship, Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide, published in 2013, a work that reads Life? or Theatre? in the context of the history of suicide in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buerkle connects survivors of suicide with those more generally who immerse themselves in what has passed. “Implicit in the question of suicide and the study of the past,” Buerkle writes, “is a desire to answer the question ‘why,’ to identify cause.” Can exploring a particular artwork fulfill our need to approach the persistent unknowing that ultimately haunts us, whether or not we acknowledge its power over us? Pollock’s book suggests that in the attempt we can find a way not out of, but perhaps beyond, our longing to know.
Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor, with Seamus O’Malley, of the forthcoming anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).