Charlotte Salomon’s “Life? or Theatre?”: In the Footsteps of Deceased Women: A Pattern of Mental Illness, an Obsession with Death & the Colours of Female Self-erasure (PART I)


“Charlotte Salomon and her grandparents” by Anonymous

One woman, embedded by depressed colours, carries generations of women, their burdens, secrets, behaviours and self-destructive gestures, within her, and as she walks out of this life, her name will be inherited by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Charlotte Salomon.

This grey-faced and black-clothed woman, holding her elbows in cold physical seclusion and mute determination, walks down the brown stairs and past the yellow-green wall of photographs, withstanding the culpable gaze of her ancestors, never again to set foot in the all too familiar household. Inner decorated walls transform into outer facades and windows brightened by light or engulfed in darkness, depending on the movement of the narrative and change of perspective. The woman’s silhouette is touched slightly by the colour red as she drags her body through the nocturnal November city streets, past melancholic lanterns, barren trees, all reflecting the light that has gone out within her and the red thread of death entangling her.

The closer the eighteen-year-old woman comes to the lake she envisions for her action, the more liberated and paradoxically vivid she seems. When leaving the parental home, her body is crouched, resigned, adapted, self-concealed and rigidly composed until she approaches the setting of her suicide, drawn toward her wish, her body stretches in a lively way, arms and hands move in front of her body and over her head, the posture switches from feminine to regimental, and if before she seemed to vanish amongst the desperate shapes of trees, she now seems to tragically outgrow them. The colours of the lake and the sidewalk are symbolically almost identical, the via dolorosa of her life, the steps toward her death and the element conducting her there. Since the interior of her abandoned home, the idea of the lake and her self-murder are present, guiding her, evoked by her mind, coming to life with every last action.

An effusion of red dots marks the spot where she jumps into the lake and drowns, her Ophelian body drifting off, horizontally, peacefully, until she reaches an obscure otherworldliness, a black tree with sanguine-coloured traces in full blossom, where she sheds her human remains, readjusts, and, in a victorious posture, regenerated, she curiously glides into a sphere unseen.

paint brush on brown pocket
Photo by cottonbro on

This is the prelude to Charlotte Salomon’s artistic masterpiece, the opening of Pandora’s box, her life and the meaningfulness thereof: the self-erasure of her aunt, Charlotte.

The next painting encapsulates the aunt’s obituary, the father’s identification visit to the morgue, then returning to his inconsolable family: the mother embracing her other daughter, Franziska (who’d later give birth to Charlotte the artist) who feels the weight of this decease on her own shoulders as if she was now supposed to live for and embody two, death and life, reality and memory in one body, hers. The parental pressure must be enormous.

The aunt’s body lies still, surrounded by a sullied beige oval-shaped colour that reads like a failed motherly amniotic fluid or an invisible coffin reminiscent of Snow White’s. She looks composed à la fin-de-siècle belle morte, her hands folded in her lap, the hair long, combed and down. When she was alive her face had a grey sickly-green colour and an expression that resembled a tragic mask. In death, her face has a rosy and light violet colour that is accompanied by a relaxed and friendly demeanour. The tingling red energy, the electrified scarlet particles that were shimmering around her body pre-mortem, fully flesh out the dress that she wears as a corpse. She has transitioned, death has taken her, engulfed her body. Rather than an emblem of guilt and shame due to her self-murder, red reads as an alarm sign, a foreshadowing colour, a warning signal.

As the father hovers over his daughter’s beautified angelic corpus, he is disembodied, the head is not shown, her feet hidden behind and almost streaming into his crotch. The red colour and its significance are immediately linked to the father’s sex, the death of a female body, the offspring, the acts ejected, from his body to hers, the instrument of her demise? Cause and effect? (In a letter, the artist Charlotte Salomon hints at sexual abuse (potentially over generations) committed by her grandfather and admits to having poisoned and murdered him). In a way, her feet point at the guilty party and he defends himself, in rejection of the accusation, by shielding his sex with his hat, the culpability expressed by a dead body dribbling off his mourning persona.

The obituary states that the parents will hopefully find comfort in their older daughter, Franziska. The meaning of this expression is quite dreadful, it’s as if one poison flows from one person to the next. Did Franziska inherit their father’s unwanted attention? Is she next in line? Will she face the same hopelessness, the same supposed salvation? Will she discover the vicious circles of her family, the father’s vile abuse/activity and the mother’s silence/passivity? Will she replace her sister? Become a duplicate until she cannot deal with it anymore? The red traces hover over the father’s head, (this time the head is protected by the hat to keep accusations at bay) then outline the female figures, pointing at the continuation, an omen exposing the nature within this family, the inherited tragedy that drives women to their graves. Their faces now have the same sickly grey-green colour. The distance between the female character and the father is symbolically blemished by the red colour, it moves with his actions.

In 1917, a few paintings later, Charlotte the artist is born. Franziska names her after her deceased sister. Is it a gesture of breaking free from the sister’s heirloom, the burden of impersonating two identities, substitute the dead with the living or start anew as if she had never existed, never died? Expulse the responsibilities of her dead sister, transferring them onto her own daughter? Become whole again, herself, after having been torn and shrunk to make room within her for her sibling? Is it an act of liberation and reconstitution? An offering to her parents? A chimera? An opportunity for Charlotte to erase the past and embody the future, disrupting the viciousness of her family history?

person in white long sleeve shirt holding paint brush
Photo by cottonbro on

The sickly green-grey complexion of the family grief and closeness to death travels from face to face and gradually from Franziska’s to her daughter, Charlotte’s. Franziska could not escape what lurked in her own body and mind, no matter how dormant it had been, the mental illness eventually erupts. The images that she puts in her daughter’s head about death, angels, afterlife and herself are idyllic idealisations and plants the seed of comfort for what she already has in mind for herself: following her sister’s footsteps with a clean conscience now that Charlotte has made it into this world. The way she phrases her contact with her daughter as an angel, intended as a source of solace, is in truth rather grim and grotesque. She tries to erase the images of the reality of death before they even happen and replace them a priori in her daughter’s mind with a controlled narrative and an artificial beautiful version of the event that is to come soon.

In Franziska’s head, she is already in Heaven, speaks to Charlotte as if she had seen it all. After sugarcoating death imagery, she asks her daughter whether she’d like it if her mother became a magnificent angel, in a morbid way she basically asks her daughter for approval and consent in order to take her own life, guilt-free. She pretends that she’d still be able to visit her and that she’d look beautiful as an angel and seduces Charlotte into wanting to see her like that and wait for it to happen. In this painting, Franziska and Charlotte are holding each other under a red blanket in direct reference to the red accusatory dress her sister Charlotte wore post-mortem. The scene depicts the false image Franziska puts into Charlotte’s head: her mother dressed in white, happily ascending to Heaven where a lot of colourful harmonious godlike figures wait for her presence, her metamorphosis into a radiant angel (amongst an aerial blue parallel to her sister’s watery blue element) shortly descending to leave her daughter a letter. The whiteness of Franziska’s robes is blemished by red tones, muddled with the colour blue on the window sill where her suicide will take place, evoking the same violet colour of the idealised face of her dead sister. The bed becomes an intimate space for traumatisation.

In the next painting, Franziska’s body gradually resembles her sister’s body when she walked toward her downfall: crouched, fetal, desperate, resigned and sickly green. The more her husband tries to console her the greener her face becomes. The colour of her red and blue dresses in life stands in direct opposition to the white dress she wears when she first tries to kill herself with an opium overdose. And yet, there it is again, the drizzling of the slight death-impending red in her silhouette dedicated to her self-destruction, the red thread of her family’s lifelines, the grey overtones, the nebulous requiems hummed to the self. She thinks of herself as a poisoned body long before literally poisoning it.

Franziska survives her suicide attempt and is relocated to her parents’ house because it is considered the safest place for her. It only takes one moment of solitude for her to resume her death wish in 1926. Her attempt had been previously trivialised and dismissed as a short-lived sentimentality. This depiction contrasts Franziska’s idealisation of her death and afterlife. Her nightgown is drenched in earthy mud-colours, as if she was already buried, descended not ascended, earth not air. Her body posture conveys an interior absence, a hollow body, as if life had already been drained and disappeared, the gaze looks empty and vacant, the only strength left in Franziska’s body is used to jump out of the window. Her entire body personifies resignation. First, her entire body is depicted standing in front of the closed window, then in the next sequence only a dark-green foot falling off the window sill is visible.

The following painting is anything but the angelic wholesomeness that Franziska instilled in her daughter’s imagination. It is brutal. Charlotte is told that her mother died because of the flu. She reconstructs the appearance of her mother when her body was found and sets the record straight once she finds out what really happened to her. The colours are mute, numb and pale. The sprinkled bright redness is gone, only a puddle of timid-red blood remains, Franziska’s head in it. The mental illness was put in her head, dragged through generations. One foot is in an upward position, again, it’s this limb that points toward the bodies of crime, abuse and guilt, the household of sieving terrors. This portrayal of Franziska’s body destroys and overrides her fantastic angelification.

Franziska’s mother is painted alone in her grief. She finds herself in almost the exact same body position as her daughter when she mourned her younger sister. Charlotte’s grandmother becomes a deprived child in this picture. A mother without children sinks into the background. She holds her own body together, contains her emptiness, her losses. Alone and deserted. The vicious circle, back to the roots. She becomes the anchor of her own misery and seclusion.

Shown next is Franziska’s husband, Albert, sitting on her bed, the blanket tarnished by a dark-red colour still, his clothing infected by the same tones of red, as if he was becoming or had always been part of the material, his wife’s declining mental state. Both his hands are on his head, lines of red slightly but poignantly surround his face, head and fingers, flooding down his legs.

Albert and Charlotte are seen in the following painting, she is looking at him, his scratched head, the torn and bloody skin, the bad conscience, grief and self-punishment. The few hairs on her head are crimson-coloured, her body disappointed by death, how it is so very different than what she was told it would be, the heaviness of this loss is reflected on her and her suffering father.

Charlotte and her grandparents don’t attend Franziska’s funeral and at first she doesn’t comprehend why people are crying instead of being happy that her mother has now reached Heaven and is transforming into an angel. She brings wreaths and letters to her mother’s grave awaiting  the promised otherworldly visit from her. She suffers many sleepless nights, an unquiet mind draws her toward the window awaiting a motherly moment of reunion. Proof that she told her the truth. That she lives on as an angel. That she hasn’t forgotten her daughter and her longing to see her again. Her figure and posture are those of a girl balancing hope and disappointment, reality and faith, intimacy and abandonment, rationality and nightmares. Franziska neither comes to see Charlotte, nor does she leave her a letter from the netherworld.

Death and absence become real through her sudden fears and nightmares of an overarching bone-crackling monstrosity pecking at her family, dissolving it, one by one, a force in connection with her mother, perhaps her aunt, perhaps others, ravaging away in old familiarity, unbeknown to her in all its patterns and truths. A threat rummages through the corridors scavenging for new prey and it makes Charlotte want to run away as fast as she possibly can, to escape its murderous clasp, the predetermined fate of women in her family, but instead she runs toward her own life, powerfulness and destiny, without knowing yet that, very soon, Germany will never be the same again.

Recommended reading:

“Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre? A Selection of 450 Gouaches”

By Evelyn Benesch and Judith C. E. Belinfante


By David Foenkinos

side view photo of a woman holding paintbrush
Photo by cottonbro on



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