A Theatre of Truth
This book is a biographical review based on an autobiographical work. It is
one of the few critical pieces on Charlotte Salomon currently available in
English. In its second edition, it boasts a powerful insight into the artist,
her work, and how the Holocaust both forced her to develop at great speed, and
to die prematurely.
It is an important publication for Holocaust scholars as well as students of
art history, psychology, and women's studies. It will also hold value for the
lay reader. This is a book which presents an artist who, in a wave of intensity
in the year prior to her death, produced a body of work in its execution and
conception comparable to that of the great modern masters. Salomon is an
important female protagonist in the fields of visual culture and Holocaust
studies, and one that is seldom addressed in curricula. Above all, Felstiner has
represented Salomon as human and fallible and as a woman with the guts and
integrity to construct meaning from her own fragile existence.
The book has been very cleverly designed and written. It moves on a number of
parallel levels, linking Charlotte's use of layering with the levels of
deception with which she was raised. Charlotte's narratives are exciting,
moving, and poignant, and they illustrate the flexibility of the human psyche
before inevitable destruction. Felstiner's commentaries on Charlotte's work
illustrate the complex dilemma of self-destruction for Charlotte: not only was
suicide widely seen as a solution to the political quandaries of the time, it
was an internal blight, activated by the clinical tendency to suicide in
The book takes the reader through the narrative of Life? Or Theatre?,
an operetta constructed by Salomon from more than a thousand drawings and
interwoven with text, image and song on semi-transparent overlays. In doing so,
it mirrors Charlotte's life with that of her semi-fictional alter-image,
Charlotte Kann. It also documents the way in which the Holocaust touched the
life of one individual and everyone close to her. Felstiner links the main
protagonists carefully throughout. One of the subsidiary lines of narrative
which she traces focuses on the coming of age and rise to power of Alois
Brunner, who headed the war machine that eventually killed Charlotte.
The three sections of the book are broadly determined by the places in which
Charlotte lived. The subsections focus on her different emotional states of
mind--and they cast an image of the developing Charlotte, who grew from a
nondescript little girl into a woman of passion and integrity, not frightened to
express herself or reveal her Jewish identity--even through anti-Semitic
Felstiner has enabled the structure of this book to emulate that of the
operetta. Elegantly written and carefully researched, it is a very emotional
read and follows clear story lines. In many scenes, the distinction between the
events recorded in Life? Or Theatre? and Charlotte Salomon's lived
experiences is not always clear. This is because of the dearth of information on
her, but it effectively contributes to the drama of the narrative. As the
threads connecting Charlotte with Brunner remain tenuously present throughout,
so is there a constant undertone of the terrible events which forced Charlotte
to take steps back from the horrifying realities of her life--in its historical
time-frame as well as personally--to create Life? Or Theatre?. Making
this work was a source of emotional succour and a place from which to question
and criticise people's behaviour and examine the continuum of her life.
Charlotte responded unusually to all the destruction which she was heir to.
Unlike her family members, she did not elect to destroy her life but rather to
recreate it in what she terms a three-colour opera. This concept is profound as
it is modern. It is the actualisation of a play or film through painting each
separate scene or still and writing the words and music appropriate to each, on
overlays. In making this work, Charlotte is articulating the choice which she
made to live for all of those who had committed suicide. Unlike a purely factual
account, the author has poetic license. Here, each character speaks through
Interestingly, the unbearably demeaning conditions which Charlotte faced in
Gurs, France and later in Auschwitz, are not dealt with at all in her work. Life?
or Theatre? is about seeking out a positive reality in an overwhelming
Felstiner has researched into the areas of Charlotte's life not mentioned in Life?
Or Theatre?. Significantly, one of the areas raised is that of the
discrepancy in behaviour and treatment of women and men in single sex prisons.
This aspect of Felstiner's research and writing raises issues of woman abuse
during the Holocaust not previously explored in the literature.
Through Felstiner's interpretation and translation of many of the overlays,
an absurd and black humour becomes evident. This is due in part to the blatancy
of many of the expressed emotions, which in some instances are almost obscene in
their outright spontaneity. This outlet is significant in the psychological
make-up of a young woman, stained by so many suicides in her family and the
brutal way in which she learnt about them. Her renditions, perceptions and
commentaries were also sullied by her contemporary world and by premonitions of
the horror it would hold for her. Salomon's life testimony is neither sweet nor
sentimental: it is a harsh and critical overview of the distorted truths and
layers of deception which constituted and boldly coloured so much of her life.
This sense of layering was one which compelled her to be as explicit as possible
in every given circumstance of her life.
The book follows chronology, in European history as well as in Life? Or
Theatre?. Felstiner begins in 1913, at the suicide of Charlotte's aunt.
Charlotte was born four years later, and her narrative intermingles this
suicide with subsequent events. In recording events leading up to the mid-1940s,
Felstiner's writing becomes staccato in form--comprising quotes from different
witnesses in unison.
The book follows all the main protagonists' lives to their ends, bringing the
reader to the present day, where Brunner may still be alive and, pathetically,
his significance may still be inescapably linked to the Holocaust.
The layout and design of the book emulates a quality of Life? Or Theatre?.
The page which introduces each new section features one of Charlotte's images,
reduced to a watermark--as though it were an overlay. It is a pity that the
amount of images contained in this book are restricted, as many of them are
analysed in detail by Felstiner, whetting the reader's appetite.
The book is a powerful and evocative exploration of a life so damaged by
people near and far from Charlotte that her only recourse was to the truth which
she found in the act of painting. Felstiner has ably given life, freedom, and
credibility to Charlotte's gesture of recreating herself and immortalising her
story through her legacy of paintings. Ultimately, Charlotte's making of this
work and secreting it for future readers, beholders, and performers was a
victorious one, one which has indeed given her immortality.
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