In 1933, the World Disappeared

It is difficult to decide which is the most spine-tingling image in Charlotte Salomon's exhibition of drawings from Nazi Germany.

It is difficult to decide which is the most spine-tingling image in Charlotte Salomon's exhibition, but without doubt a document from 1935, found by curator Yehudit Shendar in the registration files of the Berlin Academy of Art, is a prime candidate. The document shows small 'family tree' diagrams for calculating the Jewishness of the students at the academy.

Two students who were only one-eighth Jewish were allowed to continue their studies. The enrollment of those who were one-quarter Jewish, on the other hand, and of course that of the single 100-percent Jewish student (Salomon) was terminated. Even though calculations of this sort are known, to see this document and realize this procedure was followed by the academy, until then considered one of the bastions of culture in Europe, is sickening.

The exhibition of Salomon's works is fascinating, thanks to both the special story of her family and to the humanistic and multitalented description of the collapse of the Jewish bourgeois world in Germany after the rise of the Nazis due to its naivete and deep identification with German culture.

Some 200 works are on display, out of about 1,300 drawings in the story, "Life? or Theater?: A Play with Music," written and illustrated by Salomon in 1940-1942, when she was living in Villefranche in southern France. The paintings clearly show the strong influence of most of the leading European artists of the 1930s, whose works Salomon probably saw at exhibitions in Berlin.

Salomon was obviously inspired by the styles of Munch, Picasso, Chagall, Max Liebermann, Max Beckmann and George Grosz, among others. She was also influenced by many types of presentation, from medieval church paintings to cartoons. The visual images are accompanied by texts that include quotes from the best of German poetry, dialogues and Salomon's own comments. She molded this mixture of influences into a personal language in which she describes, mercilessly and with the honesty of someone who no longer has anything to lose or conceal, her own and her family's history and the world-shattering events that affected them.

"Life? or Theater?" was created as a kind of therapeutic project. Salomon left Germany after her father was arrested on Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938). She joined her grandparents, who had already been exiled from Germany to southern France.

Salomon wrote to her father and stepmother, who had fled to Holland, that she felt emotionally unstable. The family doctor whom they consulted suggested that they send Salomon painting materials so that she could give artistic expression to her distress. Thus she began to create the illustrated story that while similar to other works, is still unique.

Entrusted to a friend

Salomon's portfolio was given to her parents (who survived the Holocaust in a hiding place in Holland) by a family friend to whom Salomon had entrusted it, and they donated it to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, which first exhibited it in 1981. Since then, "Life? or Theater?" has been displayed a few times in Europe and North America. This is the first time this work has been exhibited in Israel, and has been curated well.

Shendar has prepared a lucid exhibition with clear explanations of the works, offering viewers deep insights into Salomon and her family (for example, that opera singer Paula Lindberg, Salomon's stepmother, sang at Liebermann's funeral. He was the greatest Jewish artist of his time and headed the Berlin Academy of Art, but since he died after the Nazis took power, fewer than a dozen people attended his funeral).

It is reasonable to assume that Salomon, born in 1917, would have had a complicated life even without the rise of the Nazis regime. No fewer than eight of her maternal relatives had committed suicide (not counting her grandmother, who died after jumping from a window during the war). After Salomon's mother committed suicide, Dr. Salomon married Lindberg, who liked Charlotte, but apparently had an affair with the object of her stepdaughter's affections. Salomon was a very promising artist. Although influenced by many painters, she had her own style and a talent for complex compositions.

The paintings from her life before the Nazis' rise to power depict the suicide of her aunt, after whom she is named, her parents' marriage, and her happy early childhood. Salomon paints seaside vacations, a large Christmas tree and herself, sitting on her mother's lap as the latter relates how wonderful it is to be an angel in heaven. The mother promises her daughter, depicted in soft, light colors, to send her letters from heaven by leaving them on the windowsill. The window becomes a recurring motif in many of Salomon's paintings. It symbolizes the conception of art as a view of the world through a window, as an alternative perspective of it (a concept based on art history since the Renaissance). But it mainly represents her disappointment and farewell to innocence.

The rise of the Nazis is depicted through the family prism and also through drawings of Nazi marches. These drawings, such as the one of a flag bearing the date January 30, 1933, are excellent. Salomon manages to describe a human monolith, transmitting the sense of power and supremacy that seduced so many to joining the Nazis, but also the clouding skies and the erasure of everything between the marchers and the heavens, as if the world had disappeared.

The story of Salomon's journey to the south of France, her life on the estate of Ottilie Mohr, an American of German origin who sheltered and saved many war refugees (an amazing story worthy of its own article) and Salomon's grandmother's suicide conclude her work.

It is also worth seeing the landscapes (watercolor and oil) that Salomon created at Mohr's, displayed as part of the Holocaust art collection in the building adjacent to the exhibition pavilion.

Salomon married Alexander Nagler, another Jewish refugee and manager of the Mohr estate. The couple was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. Salomon was pregnant and was murdered immediately. Her husband died after a year in the camp. There are no paintings from Salomon's married life, but if she could have, she would surely have created another wise, witty and heartrending true story.

Charlotte Salomon: "Life? or Theater?" Curator: Yehudit Shendar. Yad Vashem exhibition pavilion. Sunday-Wednesday 9:00-17:00, Thursday 9:00-20:00, Friday 9:00-14:00. Entrance free.