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August 18 - 25, 2000

[Art Reviews]

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Life studies

Framing the art of Charlotte Salomon

by Peter Keough

At the Museum of Fine Arts through October 26.

Compared with Anne Frank, Charlotte Salomon was a mess. Frank and her diary are icons of individual decency, courage, and faith in the face of unspeakable evil. Salomon, on the other hand, was an artist.

Born in Berlin, in 1917, she pursued her dream of becoming a painter in the midst of domestic melodrama and historical tragedy. Her mother committed suicide (Salomon was told she died of the flu), her father remarried, and Charlotte fell in love with her stepmother's singing teacher and would-be lover. Meanwhile the Third Reich came to power, and Charlotte took refuge in the south of France with her grandparents. When her grandmother joined her mother and aunt by killing herself, Salomon decided that she not only wanted to live but wanted to re-create her life in a series of paintings. A Proust with a paintbrush and little time, she completed Life? Or Theatre?, a collection of almost 800 gouaches with text telling the story of her life, a graphic novel executed half a century before Art Spiegelman's Maus that combines the sly insouciance and lyricism of Henri Matisse with the dark edge of George Grosz and Egon Schiele. Packing her work in a suitcase, she presented it to a local doctor. "Please keep these safe," she said. "It's my whole life." She died in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 26.

The life Salomon entrusted to paint can now be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, where part of Life? Or Theatre? is on exhibit. What others have made of her life can be seen in the accompanying series of films. Each provides an illuminating supplement to the artist's body of work, and one of them is a work of art in its own right.

More on the supplemental side are the two films with dramatic ambitions. Frans Weisz's Charlotte (1980; screens September 21 at 6 p.m. and October 19 at 6 p.m.) is an earnest, tasteful bio-pic that focuses on the uneasy triangle of Charlotte (Birgit Doll), her stepmother Paula (Elisabeth Trissenaar), a famed opera singer whom Salomon whimsically names in her opus "Paulinka Bimbam," and Paula's voice teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, called Amadeus Daberlohn in Salomon's dramatis personae, and played by Derek Jacobi with an edge of madness that does credit to his character's egomaniacal charisma. The teenage Charlotte finds inspiration in the flamboyant Amadeus (he looks like a young Jean-Luc Godard) and his notion that the artist must descend into death to embrace life. He, perhaps partly to further his designs on Paulinka, encourages her ardor and her art. Whatever his motives, he is the muse she invokes when she embarks on her epic artistic endeavor.

Charlotte is respectful and subtle, if a little stodgy (prophetic though he seems at first, Amadeus turns out to be a bit of a blowhard), in its capturing of the artist's life. But as is often the case in reverent portraits of this type, the art is secondary. Actual images from Life? Or Theatre? are mere cameos, and Salomon's artistic process and passion make little impression.

Sabine Willmann's unfortunately titled Love, My Darling, Is Bottomless (1998; September at 8 p.m., October 8 at 1:30 p.m., and October 26 at 6 p.m.) seeks to rectify that. Here the emphasis is on the theater. Some think Salomon's work, which she describes as a "singspiel," or a play with music, was intended as an operatic fusion of song, art, and drama. Love, My Darling suggests that such a production might not have been a good idea. Again, the romance between Charlotte and "Amadeus" takes center stage (with lots of asides directed at the camera and other pseudo-Brechtian business), and it's intercut with interludes in which Salomon's text is sung with her paintings projected in the background in a changing triptych. Whatever Salomon had in mind, it probably wasn't this close to Andrew Lloyd Webber or bad performance art.

Coming closer, I'd guess, to the artist's intentions is Charlotte: Life or Theatre? (1992; October 1 at 1:30 p.m. and October 12 at 6 p.m., with the 60-minute video documentary Paula Paulinka), a 52-minute documentary from the challenging Swiss filmmaker Richard Dindo. The most faithful to her work, this movie is also the most cinematic. Using the simplest means -- monotone voiceover of the text, discreet music, occasional snippets of archival or present-day footage and photographs -- Dindo passes from image to image in Salomon's series, demonstrating that it's a motion picture frozen in time, with close-ups, long shots, and artful cutting.

Dindo's film also confronts the overwhelming element that's largely absent from the other two films: the Holocaust. It is a beast pressing on the film's frame, emerging now and then with the blood-red gash of Nazi banners in Salomon's gouaches. Far from being unaware of the horror mounting about her, Charlotte kept it off stage, until her life and art were complete, and triumphant.


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