This week, Baltimore’s Annex Theater brings the life and art of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon to the stage in a daring, experimental work of visual and aural bravado that seeks to deliver a visceral sense of the power and pathos of Salomon in its original production, “Life or Theatre?”
The dual mysteries of Salomon’s life and work is that she was able to create an astonishing 1,300 paintings accompanied by a 32,000-word text, transparent overlays and music cues while in hiding in France during the Holocaust, and that her striking, evocative and groundbreaking opus “Life? or Theatre?” survived (although its creator did not) but is largely unfamiliar to the general public.
“Even though the work survived in its entirety, which is incredible, it just hasn’t gotten that well known over the years,” said Annex marketing director Shy Mukerjee. “She’s a tour de force as an artist and she’s now considered one of the early pioneers as a creator of a graphic novel.”
“Life or Theatre?” writer/director Carly Bales was first introduced to Salomon’s story by Annex founding artistic director Evan Moritz, who saw an article in The New Yorker about Salomon. Bales was looking for an idea for a new piece for Annex and on reading about Salomon was “hooked on the idea of finding a way to realize these paintings on stage,” Moritz said.
The New Yorker article (“The Obsessive Art and Great Confession of Charlotte Salomon,” July 15, 2017) was prompted by the release of three books about Salomon commemorating her 100th birthday and an Amsterdam exhibit of the work, which Salomon had edited down to about 800 paintings.
Salomon lived a too short, complex and tragic, yet artistically productive life. She was born in 1917 to middle-class German Jews in Berlin, where her father was a surgeon, and grew up under the Weimar Republic. Then the Nazis came to power in 1933.
When Charlotte was 8, her mother threw herself out a window and died. There were many suicides in Berlin during Hitler’s reign, according to Mary Lowenthal Felstiner in her book, “To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era.” Charlotte’s father remarried singer Paula Lindberg, and Charlotte eventually attended the Berlin Art Academy as the only Jewish student, where she discovered and refined her artistic talent.
When her father was discharged from his job, arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, her stepmother eventually secured his release. Knowing that as Jews in Berlin they would be under constant threat, they sent Charlotte to France to live with her maternal grandparents, where her grandmother, in a tragic reflection of her daughter, also committed suicide. While living with her grandfather, Charlotte found out she was named after her aunt who had also killed herself.
While in exile in France, Salomon embarked on a two-year flurry of artistic productivity, painting and writing each day and eventually completing her semi-autobiographical life story “Life? or Theatre?” just months before she was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered upon arrival.
“Charlotte Salomon faced a possibility of death and still told a story of growth,” Felstiner wrote. “In the thick of the fear, she created the most penetrating visual record we have from the Nazi era about a single life.”
Her father and stepmother fled to Amsterdam and survived the war. Before Salomon was taken she gave the complete work to a friend for safekeeping. It made its way to her parents and they donated the work to Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum in 1971. And although the work has been exhibited in part in Europe and the United States over the intervening years, last year was the first time the work as a whole had been exhibited and published.
“It presented a really interesting challenge to adapt a story from a different medium and bring it to life onstage,” Bales said. “It’s so blatantly such a strange, intriguing story and I was really drawn to the idea of her journey of creating herself through her art. I thought there were interesting feminist underpinnings to the work that I wanted to explore, and this idea of creating agency for oneself and empowering oneself to tell one’s own story on one’s own terms.”
Instead of a straight, chronological interpretation of Salomon’s story, Bales chose to adapt the work by retaining the feel and process of the work itself and incorporating that into the play. She pored over contemporary Eastern European music, poetry and German Expressionist art and film, in addition to the academic writings surrounding Salomon.
“I really feel like there was a magpie quality to the creation of her work that I wanted to honor, but also interpret in my own light,” Bales said.
Film and projections designer Rachel Dwiggins took cues from German Expressionists as well as Dadaist and other experimental film movements.
“Carly and I were in sync with what she was going for: a dreamlike atmosphere, a more ethereal space that elicited a more visceral response as an accompaniment for the dialogue,” Dwiggins said. “I was looking at things like ‘Symphony of Berlin,’ Ruttman’s ‘Opus’ series and ‘Ballet Mechanique’ and then thinking of how to work in that style with ‘found’ historical footage of Germany.”
Dwiggins pulled in elements from YouTube, shot her own footage and incorporated stills of the actors and elements from Salomon’s paintings.
Music director James Young also dipped into history to compose the music and design the sound.
“All of the music you hear in the play is taken from the work of 19th- and early 20th-century German composers, except some Bizet. I then chopped up this music and rearranged it into a series of sonic collages,” Young said. “Many of Salomon’s paintings included music titles. For instance, Schubert’s string quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’ appears prominently in her art. And so the same string quartet plays a leading role in the music, often appearing as a stark, lonely chord.”
Moritz said even with such a complex work, all of the elements seemed to magically come together right from the start of rehearsals. He hopes theatergoers will leave with a sense of Charlotte Salomon and her stunning and ambitious work and want to learn more.
“To me it’s a win for an artist who I think deserves a whole lot more recognition if people do see this show and they’re inspired.”
“Life or Theatre?” runs through June 17. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org/life-or-theatre.
The entire work of Charlotte Salomon’s “Life? or Theatre?” is online at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum website: jck.nl/en/page/charlotte-salomon-work