Les Femmes de la Décadence: Charlotte Salomon: The Fulfilment of an Artistic Vocation

“Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.”

(Charlotte by David Foenkinos)

The colours of death instilled themselves into the furniture, the familial routines, the scent within the apartments containing their generational secrets and vicious history, and from there, slowly but irrevocably into the memory of Charlotte Salomon, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century who was murdered, pregnant, in Auschwitz.

Born into a family constellation, besieged by mental illnesses and anxiety, that eradicates itself, Charlotte gravitates relentlessly towards creation instead of destruction, expression instead of silence, exposure instead of concealment, truth instead of deceit. In the decaying walls of her family’s microcosm, she learns how to survive and distil life, everything she knows, quickly, from her mind to her hands, the images in her head, from the past into her present, and her present into the future that she won’t exist in, out of her mortal body onto everlasting paper. As history unravels and threatens her with a cruel destiny, the urge to fulfil her artistic vocation possesses and obsesses her and what takes others a luxury of a lifetime to create, she produces in a few years time, time that she never had, in life-threatening conditions, pressured, urgently, as if she were completely aware that she was not going to survive the Nazi regime and genocide.

The fatal lack of time accelerates the most powerful engine of her immortalised creativity. She discovers that death has always been a part of her life, through her mother’s suicide, her aunt’s suicide, her grandmother’s suicide and great-grandmother’s suicide. Women drawn towards self-annihilation, effacement, disappearance, absence, yet all vivid within her and her inherited body, the transferred trauma, lack of language and liberation, the misconstrued and misunderstood female body finding comfort in the echoing arms of death, almost seductive and savagely familiar, but Charlotte, the artist, refuses this self-negating plight, equipped with the tragic fates of her foremothers and the times she lives in, she dedicates herself and her unique genius to the revolutionary task of catapulting and injecting her life into colours, words, paper, becoming a body of work, heart and soul, life nurtured and maintained within the arts.

She resists the further attempts of her grandfather to sexualise her body, abuse it for his needs, drain it of its energy, and breaks the ranks of female complicity and complacency by fatally poisoning him and killing the longstanding idea of female martyrdom and victimisation in her family. In the big picture, her body evades the Nazi regime’s murderous grasp for as long as possible, reapplying its life to the arts, reembodying it, from one form of life to another, exhumed and reincarnated. She excavates and reforms everything within her to incapacitate the Nazi regime to get ahold of, get rid of and take her life’s work away from her. She manufactures the survival of her inner life, identity and voice. Charlotte reinvents her own life before the massmurdering regime takes its ephemeral form away. She creates her own indestructible legacy against the grain.

“Sorg gut dafür, es ist mein ganzes Leben!”

(Charlotte Salomon: Leben? oder Theater? by J. Belinfante & E. Benesch)


“Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden at Villa L’Ermitage, 1939” by an unknown author (Jewish Historical Museum)

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