Her Life an Open Book

In Charlotte Salomon's extraordinary Life? or Theater? A Play with
--a kind of unbound epic, composed of more than 700 watercolor
panels plus text and suggestions for accompanying music--the painted
curtains rise on Berlin, 1913. A young woman, named Charlotte, is
floating blue-faced in her coffin. She has drowned herself. This
exhibit, which features about half of the total work, recently left the
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is now at the Jewish Museum of New
. Only moments into it, we can already sense the contradictions that
will propel it forward. Here is life--or is it theater?--compressed into
two dimensions and nonetheless exploding off the paper. (In one of the
exhibit's first page-size panels, there are 27 different swiftly dabbed
images of the young woman leaving her apartment, walking through the
streets, approaching the river, and sinking under the water.) Here is
cartooning--or, with its sometimes comic, rhyming text, is it
cabaret?--that asks itself the most serious of questions: Why live? Why
suffer? Why art?

Created between 1940 and 1942, Life? or Theater? is the
forebear of today's serious "graphic novels," such as Art Spiegelman's
and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. It is a multimedia
project put together before the term was even coined. And the exhibit
does sometimes creak with age. Yet in the complexity of its portraits
and the unsentimental honesty of its gaze, it still seems to be leading
the way. Salomon's work demonstrates how a story can be built, layer
upon layer--image upon text, event upon melody, expression of the self
upon impression of the world--until it approaches both the messy
fullness of life and the trimmed and shaped clarity of theater.

Four years pass. The dead woman's sister gives birth to a little
girl, our protagonist, and names her Charlotte. Cut to 1926. The child
is nine years old. Her mother, tormented by an increasingly oppressive
sense that nothing comes of anything, throws herself from a window. When
Charlotte is in her early twenties, she will find her grandmother--the
one whose two daughters committed suicide--hanging half-dead in the
bathroom and, later, crumpled on the ground outside her window, a
suicide herself.

In outline, this is Salomon's own grim family history, although
nothing is straightforward in Life? or Theater? We don't know how
much is memoir and how much is fiction. Or is the work's title itself
deceptive, pressing us to choose between life and art, when there's
actually no clear boundary between the two? This is, after all, a story
that seems headed over the edge of a precipice, or out a window, until
suddenly--or maybe not so suddenly--we find that the subject has
changed. It is not about dying anymore, but about creating. Charlotte's
father has married Paulinka Bimbam, a celebrated opera singer, whom the
child adores--first on stage and then in life. And later Paulinka hires
Amadeus Daberlohn, an alternately brilliant and ridiculous voice
teacher, who insists that true art can come only through tremendous
suffering and who proceeds to obsess about his own artistic destiny like
an ill-tempered Woody Allen.

With Daberlohn's entrance, Salomon begins painting dialogue
directly onto her watercolors rather than printing it on overlaid
tracing paper. Indeed, Daberlohn's words--in blue block letters--often
circle the page, winding in and around his figure, almost drowning him.
Like the cry of a baby, Daberlohn tells Paulinka, art is primal and
pre-verbal; it draws its power from the artist's confrontation with
mortality. By embracing death, the artist can be reborn, Christlike,
into a world of creative possibility. Paulinka, he says, has dulled her
gift by attending to the trivial details of married life.

Daberlohn's grandiose theories are a terrific caricature of the ideas
that inspired German expressionist artists of the time. Sarcastically,
Salomon cues the voice teacher's first entrance to the melodramatic,
almost hokey strains of the "Toreador's Song" from Carmen. With
even less charity, she at times paints his face glowing fiendishly red
and orange, his eyes bulging. But setting layer upon layer, she builds a
total picture of him that is more ambiguous--and more interesting.
Paulinka finds Daberlohn by turns compelling and irritating, but under
his tutelage, she shines on stage (in the role of Orpheus, a hero who,
fittingly enough, must descend into the underworld in order to recover
his lost love).

Similarly, Salomon, for all the fun she pokes at Daberlohn, dedicates
more than half of her own exploration of the birth of an
artist--Charlotte--to consideration of his theories, and she awards him
a full-blown love affair with her heroine. In implicit defiance of
Daberlohn, Salomon takes for her own subject the very dramas of
domesticity that he dismisses, and many of her work's most resonant
moments arise out of this "trivia"--Charlotte's first furious adolescent
fight with her beloved stepmother, who at that moment is called her
"lover"; her sinking feeling when Daberlohn tells her that she is
destined to create something "above average." Yet Salomon also paints
these panels in a dreamily intense expressionist style of which
Daberlohn, no doubt, would have entirely approved.

That expressionist look of Salomon's portraits makes them now read as
period pieces. And many of Salomon's suggestions for musical
accompaniment (the play's imagined soundtrack) have since fallen into
obscurity--particularly, for an American viewer, the German folk songs
and the popular ballads of Salomon's childhood. The current exhibit
offers an audio guide with snippets of the suggested tunes, and this
helps a modern audience hear what she had in mind, but it cannot
recapture the unmediated emotional tug that she intended. A staged
musical based on Life? or Theater? opened this February in
Philadelphia, but it is necessarily a transformation, not a restoration.
There may, in fact, be no way to restore Salomon's work to its original
power. What's surprising, however, is how much of it still feels
fresh--indeed, subtle.

Just by setting Daberlohn's lofty vision of death as inspiration
against the painful and mundane details of the deaths in Charlotte's
family, Salomon ends up revealing a great deal about both. We see that
the desperation running through Charlotte's maternal line leads neither
to the canvas nor to the stage, but out the window. Yet we see, too,
that it unmistakably inspires Charlotte's own art. And so the character
Charlotte transcends her family heritage--and the artist Salomon
transcends her expressionist niche--by facing these contradictions and
refusing the comforting illusions that are offered to her. In Life?
or Theater?
the letter that Charlotte's mother once promised to send
from heaven never arrives. For a few days after her mother's funeral,
the nine-year-old waits for it to be delivered. But finally we see the
child perched on the edge of a bathtub, the least romantic of places,
sighing, "So, that's what they call life." The full opus could as well
have been titled "So, that's what they call death."

Since Salomon herself was deported to Auschwitz (where she died at
the age of 26) shortly after this work was completed, Life? or
is often presented, or pigeonholed, as a Holocaust memoir.
But it actually says remarkably little about that gathering storm. In
one panel, we see Hitler's goose-stepping troops as a sea of mustard
uniforms and brush mustaches; in another, the frenzy of Kristallnacht.
We see Charlotte's Jewish father lose his university post and then get
sent to a labor camp (from which the resourceful Paulinka is able to
rescue him), while Charlotte herself as a young woman is exiled to her
grandparents' home in France. But for the most part, we receive
information about the rise of the Nazis in the form of newspaper and
radio reports--in words, that is, not images--which may seem more
reliable, but which also suggest the failure of Salomon's characters to
absorb emotionally what was happening.

With hindsight, we cannot help but be appalled at Daberlohn's
ignorant embrace of suffering just as the world was descending into
horror. But more lasting in its impact is Salomon's response to
him--nuanced even in the midst of unfolding events. Like a giddy display
of the possibilities of the art form she is inventing, her tiny
multiplying Charlottes cavort across the page with a life that defies
sterile theory; her fantastic characters are cartoonish yet so finely
observed that their relationships with one another and the world seem to
evolve of their own accord; her filmlike perspectives, as when she zooms
in from an "establishing shot" to a close-up, create both the illusion
of movement and the awareness that the movement is illusion; even her
colors carry a full emotional weight, disintegrating into brownish
streaks of finger paint when Charlotte herself comes near to

Still, Salomon has named her heroine Charlotte Kann, and over the
course of these panels, what we learn is that it's true: In the face of
everything, this Charlotte can, and she does. The last image in Life?
or Theater?
is of the artist turned toward the sea, canvas on lap,
brush in hand. She is about to paint. Maybe she is about to paint the
epic coming-of-age tale that we have just seen. On her back is the
question, printed in blue and red, "Life? or Theater?" It's still
unanswered, but we've just seen how much can be revealed in the asking.