Above: on top, Salomon’s Self Portrait (1940) at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; copyright belongs to the Charlotte Salomon Foundation 2017. On bottom, Serra’s Inside Out (2013) at Gagosian Gallery; copyright belongs to Richard Serra 2017, photo by Lorenz Kienzle. Via Artsy, edited in Trigraphy.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and what it is I’d like to do with my life. In the process of making these considerations, a very natural and rather banal sense of impending doom has clawed its way into my conscience. This perception is not directly related to the political climate, though many in the art world and otherwise have been furiously invoking it at every turn to explain their surging anxiety. Rather, it correlates more closely with my upcoming graduation from high school. A typical knee-jerk reaction that people employ when experiencing this strain of consternation and fear is to dive back into their pasts. However, my retreat from reality in this vein is not total; it includes a fusion of something I’ve contemplated since childhood and something I’ve only recently discovered.
When I was little, I used to sit on the floor outside my kitchen and stare at a book (or more accurately, study its spine)—a catalogue of Charlotte Salomon‘s magnum opus Life ? or Theater ? (1941-1943). Now visible from my bedroom, Life ? or Theater ? chronicles the story of Salomon, a German-Jewish artist born to a wealthy Berlin household whose mother committed suicide when she was nine. Over the 769 individual pages that compose her Singspiel, or song-play, she explores themes such as death, romance, and family, touching on art’s lasting significance in the shadow of Hitler’s viciously xenophobic Third Reich. Intended to be a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work” in the tradition of Wagner, Life ? or Theater ? is painful, personal, and morbid. The pieces and their textual overlays are done in gouache , with haunting results: Salomon’s warm colors and saturated tones create a fragility and an intimacy reminiscent of Chagall and Ensor (even Maira Kalman), yet her narratorial captions ground the works in drama and fantasy. Upon actually opening up and perusing the tome, I was mesmerized by its ethereal, dreamlike feel, a quality I would later be reminded of in Munch. Letting her thoughts wander freely, Salomon traipses through past and present, portraying the Weimar bourgeois with a loving amusement and woeful regret that sticks out in one’s memory. (more…)