The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium: Ariela Freedman on Charlotte Salomon

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights at 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here.  

Charlotte Salomon and the Strange Work: Leben? oder Theater?
Presented by Professor Ariela Freedman

What is Leben? oder Theater? (in English, “Life? Or Theatre?”) Painted and written by a young German Jewish woman named Charlotte Salomon, it is a collection of 769 9×12 gouache illustrations combined with painted text and interspersed by transparent overlays, which together tell the tale of a German Jewish family and a heroine who chooses life over suicide, and art over death. [Editor’s Note: You can see a digital copy of the book on the Jewish Historical Museum/Joods Historisch Museum of Amsterdam’s website. It also includes audio files for the songs mentioned in the book and a feature that overlays the transparencies over the images]

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Today, we would say the form resembles that of a graphic novel. Salomon subtitled her work ein singspiel, after the German tradition of folk operetta. Ariela Freedman, an Associate Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, offers a cogent interpretation of this work, an “enigma wrapped in a tragedy,” and makes the compelling case that Leben? oder Theater? is worthy of more close study and celebration.

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Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin in 1917, studied art at the Berlin Fine Arts Academy, fled Berlin after Kristallnacht, went into hiding in the south of France, and was ultimately discovered, deported, and murdered on the day she arrived at Auschwitz at age 26. Her mother killed herself when she was 9 (young Charlotte was told that it was the flu that killed her). Her stepmother was a famous singer who joined the kulturbund when Jews were banned from performing in German concert halls. Music was an important part of her upbringing, and plays a key role in her work.

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In 1937, when Salomon was still an art student, the Nazis mounted their notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibit, designed to ridicule and condemn all art which the Third Reich deemed “degenerate,” “modern,” or “Jewish” (although only a few of the artists represented were actually Jews). It was a blockbuster, with 20,000 visitors attending on one day. In fact, more people attended this exhibit than the Nazi “Great German Art Show” designed to promote state-approved Nazi art. Many “degenerate” artists visited the Entartete Kunst exhibit, including Hannah Höch, who visited several times. Freedman argued that Salomon would have almost certainly seen the exhibition, and that her work pushes back against this Nazi vilification and purgation of expressionist art.

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At age 26, Charlotte Salomon married Alexander Nagler, the caretaker of the house where she was in hiding. Her Jewish lover had gone to the trouble of obtaining false non-Jewish identity papers, but was discovered in the end. Charlotte was sent to the gas chambers the day she arrived at Auschwitz. She had already entrusted Leben? oder Theater? to a friend when she, like many Jews, went into hiding.

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The Work Itself

Leben? oder Theater? begins with a cover bordered in three strokes of red, yellow, and blue gouache. The bulk of the narrative is in the pictures. In the beginning, the illustrations are fully realized and illustrative, almost like those of a children’s book; later on, they’re briefer and more expressionist. The three modes of image, hand-painted text, and music intertwine throughout.

Ariela Freedman has undertaken separating the fiction and art of Leben? oder Theater? from the real people in Salomon’s life. Though Salomon bases characters and events in the work on her life, the work is creative and inventive, and can’t be reduced to diary or autobiography.

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The work quotes a Hebrew psalm in a corner of an early page. But there are more references to German than Jewish culture in Leben? oder Theater? The musical element, Freedman stresses, is crucial to understanding both the author’s life and the work itself, and Leben? depicts concert-going and includes numerous musical references (Wagner, conspicuously, is absent). Though Salomon is often referred to as a “Holocaust artist,” the work foreshadows rather than depicts the Holocaust; however, it does include a few images of labor camps and of the Nazis taking power. Leben? oder Theater? asks, like Primo Levi, “What is man, if stripped of his humanity?”

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The story doesn’t stay entirely dark. Charlotte’s father remarries. We also meet Amadeus Daberlohn, an odd romantic hero and something of a buffoon. Daberlohn sees himself as a new Christ. A World War I veteran, he claims to have discovered unexplored range in the human voice. Freedman reports that Daberlohn hasn’t gotten a lot of critical attention, but is very prominent in the story. She claims that you can’t separate Salomon’s aesthetic theories from Daberlohn’s ideas. He is a foil who sees Salomon’s stand-in-character, Charlotte Knarre, as a child and muse, but she surpasses this status and becomes the central artist of the story.

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The final musical theme employed in Leben? is Beethoven’s Ninth’s choral movement, “Ode to Joy,” which itself has a charged political history. The kulturbund was banned from playing Beethoven, but nonetheless, Charlotte sings “Ode to Joy” in Leben? oder Theater? as a reaffirmation of life and an act of resistance.

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The Fate of the Work

Charlotte Salomon never revealed Leben? oder Theater? to her parents. Indeed, they didn’t see its contents until 1947. The Royal Academy of Arts published a catalog with reproductions of all the nearly 800 chosen images (an additional five hundred survive but Salomon did not include them in her sequence). However, in the catalogue the text, so vitally painted and written on the overlays in the original, was instead set in type. In 1961, the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam mounted an exhibit of Salomon’s work, and the Royal Academy held one in 1998. In 1971 the Salomons donated the entire collection to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, who are the current owners and custodians of her work. A satisfying and definitive edition of Leben? oder Theater? preserving its overlays as well as the illustrations, has never been produced, and this is one of the aims of Freedman’s continued scholarship,

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The heroine of Leben? ultimately declares, “I will live! I will live for them all!” Charlotte Knarre, just as Salomon herself, rejects the path of suicide, and, crying “Let me not be mad!” resists the course of mental illness. In the final painting, we see the artist on the seaside, her words merged with her body, unified with her art. Though Salomon could not save herself, in Leben? oder Theater? she powerfully preserves and creates an alternative aesthetic and ethical vision, counter to Nazi ideology.

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Ariela Freedman is Associate Professor of Concordia University in Montreal, and holds a Ph.D. from New York University in English literature.


Images are from Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? oder Theater? and are not in chronological order. The last image is her self-portrait (Charlotte Salomon Foundation).


About the Author: Mark Lerer holds a B.A. in art history from Princeton University and an M.F.A. from the New York Academy of Art.

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9pm EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here. More from this author →