Brightart erased by a bru­tal end­ing

Moris Farhi and Ju­lia Weiner en­joy ex­plo­rations into the pow­er­ful pages of art his­tory

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

Charlotte By David Foenk­i­nos (Trans­lated by Sam Tay­lor) Canon­gate, £12.99 Re­viewed by Moris Farhi

IN SCHU­BERT’S Lied of Matthias Claudius’s poem, the maiden im­plores: “Pass me by, fierce man of bones! I’m still young. Don’t touch me.” Death re­as­sures her: “Beau­ti­ful ten­der form! I’m not fierce. You’ll sleep softly in my arms.” This ex­change epit­o­mises the sym­bio­sis of life and death that dom­i­nated the ex­is­tence of Charlotte Salomon, the Jewish painter, born in Ber­lin in 1917 to Al­bert Salomon, a sur­geon, and Franzë Grün­wald. While death, par­tic­u­larly her mother’s, haunted her fam­ily, Charlotte en­shrined her life with ex­tra­or­di­nary paint­ings.

Her fa­ther re­mar­ried in 1930. His wife, Paula Lind­berg, a cel­e­brated mezzo-so­prano, and Charlotte de­vel­oped an in­tensely lov­ing re­la­tion­ship, es­pe­cially af­ter 1933, when Nazis be­gan tar­get­ing Jews.

Around that time, Charlotte fell in love with Al­fred Wolf­sohn, Paula’s charis­matic coach. Wolf­sohn, per­ceiv­ing Charlotte’s gifts, ex­horted her to paint.

In 1936, by the grace of her fa­ther’s val­or­ous First World War record, she evaded the Nazi de­cree that barred all but 1.5 per cent of Jews from higher ed­u­ca­tion, and en­tered Ber­lin’s State Art Academy, where she dis­cov­ered the avant-garde of Ex­pres­sion­ism, vil­i­fied by the Nazis as “de­gen­er­ate”. She left the Academy when, as a Jew, she could not col­lect a prize she had won.

In 1939, flee­ing Nazi ter­ror, she joined her grand­par­ents in Ville­franche-surMer, then still un­der the rel­a­tively cle­ment Ital­ian oc­cu­pa­tion.

When, in 1940, her grand­mother com­mit­ted sui­cide, her grand­fa­ther re­vealed that seven other fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing Charlotte’s mother, had also done so.

This dis­clo­sure, kept se­cret for 15 years, trau­ma­tised Charlotte. Over­com­ing the temp­ta­tion to kill her­self too, she de­cided, as David Foenk­i­nos quotes her, “to go deeper into soli­tude and bring the dead back to life”.

There­after, she started paint­ing Life? Or Theatre? — a work of 769 note­book­size gouaches in strik­ing colours set in the pe­riod 1913-1940. Ap­ply­ing dra­matic de­vices like trac­ing-pa­per over­lays, cap­tions and com­ple­men­tary mu­sic, she cre­ated an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mas­ter­piece unique in the his­tory of art.

In 1942, she en­trusted this work to her doc­tor, Ge­orges Moridis, telling him: “Keep this safe. It’s my whole life.”

In Septem­ber 1943, Italy sur­ren­dered,

ced­ing the Côte d’Azur to Ger­many, and the round-up of Jews be­gan.

Charlotte, aged 26 and five-months preg­nant, and an­other refugee, Alexan­der Na­gler, whom she had re­cently mar­ried, were ar­rested on Septem­ber 21. Tem­po­rar­ily in­terned at Drancy, they were de­ported to Auschwitz and ar­rived there on Oc­to­ber 10. Since preg­nant women were in­vari­ably killed on ar­rival, Charlotte per­ished in the gas cham­bers. Na­gler died of ex­haus­tion three months later.

In Charlotte’s last gouache she sits by the sea, re­sem­bling Copen­hagen’s Lit­tle Mer­maid, with the cap­tion “Life? Or Theatre?” im­printed on her back like the in­dict­ments borne by the vic­tims

in Kafka’s story In the Pe­nal Colony. The cap­tion might also con­jure the Ro­man in­dict­ment, INRI, on an­other Jewish vic­tim: Ie­sus Nazareus Rex Iu­dae­o­rum.

Foenk­i­nos’s paean of Charlotte Salomon’s life, mark­ing her 100th birth­day, is a tour de force. Ev­ery im­por­tant de­tail and much more of this supreme artist’s life — “a hi­er­ar­chy of hor­ror” — is recorded lov­ingly, pas­sion­ately, ob­ses­sively and lyri­cally.

The verse-like nar­ra­tive, wherein Foenk­i­nos moves from one in­di­vid­ual line to the next “in or­der to breathe” pro­duces a be­fit­tingly vi­brant cre­ativ­ity.

Moris Farhi’s books in­clude the po­etry col­lec­tion, ‘Songs From Two Con­ti­nents’


Sec­tion from a self-por­trait by Charlotte Salomon, gouache on card, 1940, three years be­fore her death

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