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August 18 - 25, 2000

[Art Reviews]

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Life and theater

Charlotte Salomon's mixed medium

by Christopher Millis

At the Museum of Fine Arts, through October 29.

The latest show at the Museum of Fine Arts places 400 works of art on view in the limited two-room space of the Foster Gallery. For those of us who have been watching the MFA's masterpieces earn less and less wall space over the years (the afternoon I was there I noticed Titians stacked salon-style and 20 feet high, above the Tintorettos), the prospect of an overly packed visiting exhibit came

as no surprise. Fortunately, in this instance, such expectations were wrong. The 400 watercolors (gouaches to be exact) of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) occupy the Foster Gallery with the elegant deliberateness of chain mail. Salomon's richly toned, expressionistic, autobiographic images read like 400 pages from a book. And the subtitle of her opus Life? Or Theatre? (from whose 780 gouaches these 400 are drawn) suggests a text of a particular kind: she calls it A Play with Music.

Across these large-book-sized pages (every gouache is roughly the measure of the Phoenix when it's folded), characters and situations develop over series of related illustrations that create connected but distinct visual chapters. The complexity of Life? Or Theatre? (its prologue introduces 10 personae as well as students, a chorus, and "subsidiary persons") in both narrative and visual terms is the hurdle this exhibit must scale. How do you make a demanding, long book -- an object meant for our sedentary pleasure, our laps, and our privacy, and in that form easily traversed in any direction -- into multiple objects to be taken in among peripatetic strangers in a public place? They are exquisitely different dramas.

Yet London's Royal Academy of Arts, drawing from the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, has translated Salomon's art book into an inspired art exhibit. Because the number of paintings within a single frame may range from one to six, the eye never fatigues as you move among the numerous groupings and the even more numerous individual works. And the choices of what images to group and how to space them are similarly sensitive. Virtually identical pages of virtually identical heads (with different captions -- imagine Jules Feiffer as a Weimar illustrator) are stacked vertically, often in threes, to highlight Salomon's own patterning. When she's in storytelling mode, the arrangement complements her with horizontal groupings of five or six pieces within a single frame.

Display aside, "Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?" (which will move to New York's Jewish Museum in December) proves a powerful and difficult show, powerful for its raw strength and difficult for its pointed contradictions. Salomon's paintings are rough yet complex, personal yet stylized, naive yet world-weary. They are also dark, tortured, and peculiarly kinetic; you can get motion sickness if you look too long.

Charlotte Salomon's death at age 26 was no mistake. She died, a German Jew, in Auschwitz, and everyone, beginning with the intelligent essay by Norman Rosenthal in the show's comprehensive catalogue, would have us look at her work through the barbed wire of the death camp. "Without knowing the precise nature of the fate that was to befall her," Rosenthal writes, "she clearly had premonitions." He goes on to observe, "She, and those around her, become symbolic of so many nameless others."

I think that's a mistaken idea. The paintings here that relate to her relatives' suicides (of which there were many; her mother, grandmother and aunt all killed themselves within the span of Salomon's brief life) are as twisted, foreboding, and lyrical as the paintings that relate to Nazi persecution. Her treatment of her deportation and her father's arrest seems as haunting and as strangely detached as her treatment of her love for her mentor, who comes across alternately as savior and as menacing, shadowy lech.

Besides, the profoundly autobiographical nature of her work points to an intense personality, not a symbol. What's shocking about this show is the equation the artist implies between the turmoil of her inner life and the larger persecution. In emotional as well as compositional terms, the Nazis register as the mere public analogues of her protracted, private traumas. The text accompanying panel 803 reads: "Mr. Knarre [the grandfather] and Charlotte have spent the last few days in a railway car crammed with thousands of totally exhausted people. Charlotte: `I'd rather have 10 more nights like this than a single one alone with him.' "

SALOMON'S OPUS gives the sense of a work not only hurriedly done -- the 400 works presented here were all created between 1940 and 1942 -- but also overly done. It's a play, it's a musical (song lyrics appear among the texts), it's a visual narrative, it's an autobiography. In short, it's excessive, and its excesses are at the heart of its many weaknesses as well as its tremendous strengths.

Life? Or Theatre? can't make up its mind as to what matters more, storytelling or painting -- and of the two modes, only one is strong, its visual impact. The so-called characters are immediately recognizable stand-ins for people in the artist's life. The plots are propelled not so much by literary or narrative tension as by the dicta of chronology. In addition, the intermingling of words and images on the same page (something Salomon did not do for the first few hundred gouaches, which had a separate, translucent overleaf on which the text appeared, elegantly removed from the painting to which it corresponded) wants to make the paintings seem like illustrations, a tormented comic book dependent on its captions. In the end, you can't follow the plot line without steeping yourself in materials the artist did not provide.

Yet those same shortcomings are central to the power of Life? Or Theatre? To appreciate that power, I decided to visit another artist in the museum, someone totally removed from the concerns and ambiance of Salomon's life who nonetheless shared her narrative need. I found myself in front of the oil paintings of the American master John Singleton Copley, his stately Winthrops and Quincys and Paul Revere. What I learned was this: as with the smallness of her pieces of paper, Salomon's art, like her life, was turned in on itself -- first by an upper middle-class upbringing, then by a family even richer in troubles, and ultimately by the Third Reich. There is no escaping the self when it is denied.

Copley's portraits of the first generation of American nobility give us measured grace and precision; his focus is entirely on the face, the posture, the accouterments, and the clothing of his magnificent individuals. Salomon's focus is entirely on the scene, the surrounding events in which individuals are almost incidental, sailboats in a hurricane. A typical work depicts the young Charlotte buying a birthday present for her beloved stepmother. In the space of one page, at least nine scenes occur. They include window shopping, selecting a compact, purchasing it, returning home, studying her gift all night in bed, entering her stepmother's bedroom, presenting her gift, embracing. Occasionally among these crowded, almost frantic sequences, a single face is allowed to occupy an entire page, and it is in these relatively rare instances of unencumbered portraiture that Salomon becomes spellbinding, as if a personality had broken through the shackles of external events.

In many respects Life? Or Theatre? stands as a spiritual companion to the works of Salomon's fellow countrymen Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, with its mellifluent discord and scrambled symmetry, its distilled upset and telescoped theatricality. Like theirs, her subtleties are brazen and her passions incendiary.


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