Artwork Title: Portrait of her Dying Grandfather - Artist Name: Charlotte Salomon

Portrait of her Dying Grandfather

Charlotte Salomon, 1943

Salomon drew this portrait of her grandfather, in February, 1943, as he died in front of her. In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the mid-1930s, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a 35-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light. “I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her, from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his voluminous beard—survives. Salomon’s letter is addressed, repeatedly, to her “beloved” Alfred Wolfsohn, for whom she created her work. He never received the missive. Nineteen pages of Salomon’s “confession,” as she called it, were concealed by her family for more than 60 years, the murder excised. Fragments of the missing letter were first made public in the voice-over of a 2011 Dutch documentary by the filmmaker Frans Weisz. Salomon’s stepmother had shown him the pages, written in capital letters painted in watercolor, in 1975, and allowed him to copy the text, but, as requested, he had kept them secret for decades. In 2015, the Parisian publisher Le Tripode released the letter in its entirety for the first time, in a new edition of Salomon’s complete work, “Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel” (“Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play”). The English translation of this definitive edition will be published this fall, by Overlook Press. Though the discovery of the murder stunned Salomon’s scholars—none questioned the veracity of her account—the revelation of her crime garnered little attention, even in France, where Salomon has enjoyed a kind of cult status since the publication, in 2014, of the best-selling novel by David Foenkinos, “Charlotte,” inspired by her life. (Since the first publication of her work, in 1963, Salomon frequently has been referred to as only “Charlotte”—a habit that began as a misguided attempt to market her as a sister diarist to Anne Frank, which has served both to render her all but anonymous and to defang her ferocious work.) Separating Salomon’s work from the ill-defined, unutterably sad category of “Holocaust Art” has proved an impossible task, and this teutonic Scheherazade has meandered through the decades, curiously under the radar to all but the cognoscenti. The mischaracterization of her work is easy to trace: “Life? or Theatre?” is the largest single work of art created by a Jew during the Holocaust and, more often than not, her work is exhibited in Jewish and Holocaust museums. With only a few exceptions, Salomon’s archive—close to 1700 works—is held at the Jewish Historical Museum, in Amsterdam, where her parents donated it, in 1971. And yet, apart from a handful of depictions of the Third Reich, Salomon’s work is not about the Holocaust at all but, rather, about herself, her family, love, creativity, death, Nietzsche, Goethe, Richard Tauber, Michelangelo, and Beethoven. It chronicles the genesis of an artist from a family of dark secrets—mental illness, nervous breakdowns, molestation, suicides, drug overdoses, and Freudian love triangles: a harbinger to our age of grand confessionals. “Life? or Theatre?” comprises 769 gouaches that Salomon chose and numbered from a total of 1299; 340 transparent overlays of text; a narrative of 32,000 words; and multiple classical-music cues. It is a work of mesmerizing power and astonishing ambition. Placed side by side, the 10- x 13 inch paintings would reach the length of three New York City blocks. Salomon called the work “something crazy special”; its uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play, and, now, murder mystery. ....The horror was not over. Three months later, in June, 1940, after the French surrendered to the Nazis, Salomon and her grandfather were interred for several weeks in the Vichy-run concentration camp of Gurs, in southwestern France. The camp had no running water, the barracks had no windows or insulation, and the food was rotten. Typhoid and dysentery were rampant. Strangely, there is only one image in Salomon’s vast output that alludes to her time in Gurs, and it does not focus on the camp at all. In the painting, Salomon shows herself crouched on the floor of a crowded train car with her grandfather, “en route from a little town in the Pyrenees”—Gurs—“to Nice.” “I’d rather have ten more nights like this than a single one alone with him,” the text on the gouache reads. Elsewhere in “Life? or Theatre?,” Salomon illustrates her grandfather’s requests to share “a bed with me,” and his predatorial reasoning: “I’m in favor of what’s natural.” “Everything I did for my grandfather drove blood to my face,” she wrote in the confession. “I was sick. I was constantly beet-red from mute rage and grief.” She also rails against his “theatre of civilized, cultured-man act,” calling him an “actor and an egotist,” a “puppet” who “had never felt true passion for anything.” Seen in the light of the suicides of Grünwald’s two daughters and wife, this abuse likely spanned generations. ...In a wicked twist of fate, Salomon’s French visa depended on her being her grandfather’s caretaker, so she returned to the Nice apartment where he was living and where, several months later, she poisoned him. “THE THEATRE IS DEAD!” she wrote in her confession as he was dying, a declaration whose resounding Nietzchean echo appears to answer the very question she posed in the title of “Life? or Theatre?” With this murder, Salomon defied her “inclination to despair and to dying” and chose life. [Complete article at] Despite Charlotte’s confession and the strong reasons for such an act, as there is not much need for a spavined soul hurt by endless blows of fate to decide to get rid of the offender once and for all, some people still do not believe that she could do this. This is how the story goes in David Foenkinos [novel "Charlotte"]: "A few days later the grandfather feels a sharp pain, He leaves the house and walks toward the pharmacy. He finally reaches it, but collapses just outside. And dies. Having learnt the news, Charlotte felt such relief, As if a weight fell off her shoulders. In the back of her mind, she wanted the grandfather to leave for so many times… Did Charlotte precipitate this event? Later, in one of the letters, she confessed that she had poisoned her grandfather. Is it true? Or the theatre again? This is incredible and still acceptable, If you remember how much grief he brought to her, — Constant scolding, and contempt for her work, And sexual harassment." On the one hand, we can understand the novelist who does not want to part with the bright image of Charlotte. On the other hand, he still has the right for such assumptions, since the described in the "Life? or Theater?" series love story between her and Alfred Wolfsohn almost completely took place in the girl’s head. While this view of the events was a complete surprise for the hero of her novel; in his own words, he only regarded Charlotte as a difficult teenager, who had a way with. Who knows, perhaps, her confession of the murder of her grandfather is nothing but a fantasy of how she gets rid of the hated rapist? []
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