If all the world really is a stage, the production created for it by Charlotte Salomon is one of the darkest tragedies imaginable; a story of suicide, Nazism, illness, and a poisoned omelette.
Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917, and during the war her Jewish family—like so many others—was persecuted by the Nazis, resulting in her fleeing to France. After war broke out, she was sent to Camp Gurs in the Pyrenees with her grandfather; later allowed to return to Nice due to her grandfather’s age. It was there that the artist, who’d previously been admitted to the Art Academy in Berlin, started making images again.
The result is the haunting and beautiful volume, Life? Or Theatre?, which predates the modern graphic novel as we know it, completed in 1942 just a year before her murder (and that of her unborn child) in Auschwitz.
In bright gouache and unnerving, disorientating linework, Salomon’s bold brushstrokes delineate a life beset by terrible events both war-related and otherwise; Salomon ended the suffering of her terminally ill grandfather by serving him an omelette laced with the barbiturate veronal. She drew his portrait as he died in front of her.
The work itself is a beguiling mix of strangeness, and touches of wry, bleak humour. Some bears the influence Weimar artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, with touches of Amedeo Clemente Modigliani and Gustav Klimt visible in the curves of her necks and faces.
As The New Yorker put it, her work’s “uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play, and now, murder mystery.”
When she was 23, Salomon saw her grandmother throw herself from a window, and discovered that the past three generations of her maternal bloodline had also committed suicide (she had previously thought her mother died of influenza.) “Salomon’s response was to formulate what she referred to as The Question: whether to take her own life or to undertake something eccentric and mad.” Her visual response was part of a vow she made to “create a story so as not to lose [her] mind,” according to Duckworth Overlook, which is publishing Life? Or Theatre? this September.
The resulting story is told through more than 781 gouaches and hundreds of drawings, an astonishing and obsessive feat when you consider all were completed between 1941 and 1942. As Salomon put it, “This is my whole life.”