Charlotte Salomon’s: “Life? or Theatre?”: In the Footsteps of Deceased Women: Obsession with Grief, the Colours of Vicious Circles & the Memorial Milestones of Misery (PART II)

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“Charlotte Salomon and her grandparents” by Anonymous

Charlotte’s grief-stricken grandmother holds her own body, sitting in a fetal position, the bereft mother, paranoid about her granddaughter’s life and fate, expecting death’s presence everywhere, the fear of losing is eating at her, and she dives back into her past, the history of her infected family tree that she deems cursed and morbid, gazing back into the roots of her loved ones’ downfall, sinking further into the inconsolable and irreparable obsession with mourning.

The hair on her head is grey now, her lifeless grey-green face worked into the fabric and colour of the background, a vicious circle, a swamp, externalised and internalised, drawing her in, absorbing her powerful and overwhelmed state of mind, the regression and retrospective, curving alongside her arched back straight into despair, replaying on a loop. The way she is seated, presumably on the floor, rock bottom, looks like she composes herself, holds her body, in order for it not to fall apart, she is just that fragile and shattered from the inside out. She revisits the milestones of misery from her past life to reconstruct the whole, the broken really, the bones of what has been flesh. What came out of her body is no more and her anxiety related to her granddaughter, Charlotte, is blown out of proportion by her well-trained muscle memory of bereavement.

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She remembers how her mother forced her brother to marry a woman for her money and how this plunged him into a depression and as a result he ended up drowning himself as a twenty-eight year old, leaving the mother overpowered by mental illness. The birth of Charlotte’s grandmother’s daughter, Franziska, is tainted by the suicide of her brother and the ensuing madness of her mother. The mother’s face, torn by grief, looks directly at the viewer of the painting, in agony and loneliness, as she stands with her hands folded over the corpse of her son. There it is in her face: guilt, regret and resentment, and her body contains itself, the turbulence within. In a twisted Pietà, the standing mother points with the tips of her folded hands directly at what she has done, the result of her actions, what the weight thereof has brought forth: death chosen over life, a son lost. She seems to hold herself accountable, distanced yet aware, the body too mad to touch, gut-wrenched she finally gives her son the space he needs.

Drained and exasperated by her nervous disease, the sixty-five year old dies after eight years. Her grey-green face looks more peaceful on her deathbed than in life. Charlotte’s grandmother believes that her mother cursed her offspring and family forevermore, blaming them for her discouraged life and dreadful end, wishing them the same suffering and trials so that they can put themselves in her shoes and feel what she has felt and gone through. She turned to her daughters, Franziska and Charlotte, for comfort, and her husband, unaware of the tragedies that were to come still.

The voice-over for a portrait of Franziska and Charlotte narrates how they grew to be young women, one daughter joyous and the other miserable.

Charlotte, the younger sister, is smaller, her gaze seems disillusioned, detached and dwelling on things deemed unmentionable. Franziska, taller, a green colour invading her skin like poison ivy or moss, smiles, proudly and strongly, seemingly unaware of what her sister must be going through. Charlotte, in direct contrast to her sister’s radiance, seems absent, her eyes vacant, as if she was invisible, as if a smile wouldn’t change the centre of the painting, as if she simply didn’t matter as all eyes would inevitably rest on the sister that was well and nobody would seek to understand or find out what went on in her mind, why her complexion was faded and Franziska’s full of life and supposed indestructibility. It is a truly moving and tragic portrait.

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The following painting shows the two daughters with their parents. Franziska is the centre of the image, the binding element between the parents and her little sister. But it is the alarm red colour of Charlotte’s dress that draws the attention to her, that she desperately needs help, support, the right kind of attention and affection. She already seems to fall out of the painting, the family constellation, the outcast, turning away from the union that she never feels a part of. Her fingers are entangled in insecurity, invisibility and helplessness. The lightheartedness of her big sister is the centre of parental attention and the shadow surrounding Charlotte attracts undetected predators to latch themselves onto the young woman. The parents’ limelight on Franziska, the destruction of Charlotte fading away.

The mother narrates how Franziska’s radiance mesmerises them without ever asking why their little Charlotte was so very sad all the time. She goes on by saying that the little sister was always faced with the big sister’s joyfulness. Everything she couldn’t be and project or pretend or was indeed arrested and prevented from being. Maybe Charlotte observed how she could have been if she had been left in peace, how unblemished and unburdened she could have been had certain things not happened in the background. The alerting redness fills Charlotte’s eyes now, the tragedy nears. Looking at Franziska’s lively face, Charlotte’s gaze is full of longing and suffering, everything that was taken from and expected of her, her growth and own light, she mourns her own lost identity, her halted development, and slowly the green colour takes over her facial features. It is not an ill-intentioned envy she feels toward her sister, but a comparison that makes her misery more obvious and drowns her more in the role that she has been forced to play. Whereas her sister’s childhood seems to have been worry free, hers was ended purposefully. Franziska’s growth encouraged, Charlotte’s halted. Feeling cut off from the impossible revelations of her truth, Charlotte, in observing Franziska, sees what she can never be, and it hurts nobody more than herself. Her undoing was not her doing. She resigns and gradually takes herself out of an equation that makes her despair even more.

The next painting, Charlotte, blanketed in red, stuck and further engulfed by waves of blue, the element of her demise, the lake that will take her, slight silhouettes of her drowning, splashes of red, shows the gradual disintegration of the young woman, the discolouration of her face and how she devotes her mindset to her endeavour to end her life. She gets crushed beneath the parental amazement for her sister, whilst she seems to be forced to deal with their tortured sides. In this painting, we see her fading away, her faces exposed, multiplying, a woman slipping away, falling into the blue of the painting. The mother is left with the question whether it is her fault. The father, unmentioned, silent, might know all of the answers.

The black-clothed mother is haunted by the lives of the living, their voices and faces left and right, Franziska and her husband, and she gradually gets a taste of what Charlotte must have felt. She evokes the repetitiveness of her assumed worthlessness. Maybe Charlotte had resembled her too much, reminded her of herself and her presumed weaknesses, so that she found courage, strength, detachment and comfort holding on to her daughter Franziska, thereby letting Charlotte fall into oblivion and herself by extension. What the mother misjudges is that Franziska is independent and therefore full of a life that wants to be lived, but the mother feels like an empty vessel to her that needs to be filled with purpose and substance by her which she does not see as her duty to fulfil. Franziska was never meant to give life to her mother. Charlotte’s absence brings back everything the mother suppressed. And she seems to stand alone. Now she is once again confronted with her own self or the tormented lack thereof, the crushed identity, truths that she cannot stomach, and a poisonous possessiveness of what she deems hers. Her face, grey-yellowish, the mother erupts in the midst of her surviving daughter and her husband, only to realise that she is needed by neither. She asks herself why she is still alive, unloved by her husband, unneeded by her daughter, one of them dead, now, she identifies with Charlotte, the one who has stepped into the realm of death, now she envies her descent into absence and feels what it takes to make that decision, what factors encouraged it. She feels that it is too late. In the trinity, she feels like a hole that sucks in everything that is deemed worthless and useless.

Franziska stands in front of an open window, in the flashbacks of an obsessed mother who jumps from one catastrophe to the next in her memory, she is dressed in a deep blue garment, one with the lighter blue colour of the sky framed by the window, her hands are green-yellow, her head full of death-dedicated thoughts. She stands tall faced with her upcoming demise. In the next painting, Franziska is no more, disappeared, jumped unseen, unattended, the room now brighter, engulfed in the colour of her death-craving hands, green-yellowish, the room of her suicide, tainted, blemished by a traumatising memory, Franziska is now absent, above the window sill rests a red colour, the harbinger of decadence. No longer is the young woman standing there, contemplating her downfall, she is elsewhere now, separated from the oppressive arms of her mother who never ceases to remember and evoke and manufacture what has happened.

A portrait of Franziska’s face post-mortem (an idealised back to nature image of the dead daughter beautified by her mother) stands in direct opposition to Charlotte the artist’s point of view of what her mother’s corpse must have looked like. In the mother’s version, Franziska, seems to be asleep, one with nature, soon to be put back into the earth. Even in death, her daughter shall look serene and otherworldly. The blood is running through her hair as if it was her natural colour. In her mother’s eyes she is not lying in the mud, disfigured, broken, horrifying, no, she looks like she is at peace, feminine, indestructible. As with her second daughter, the mother holds on to the 19th century image of the belle morte, that is how she chooses to remember and visualise her deceased female offspring. The lips redder in death than in life.

In the following picture, she jumps to the next dreadful event in her life, namely the suicide of her sister and of the daughter of her brother. She is dressed in black, holding up the news of both deaths in both hands, staring at the viewer, mutely asking what else she is to endure. She continues to victimise herself in her mind, bathing her mindset in never-ending self-pity. A female Saint Sebastian enduring all the deaths in her family. Death never seems to leave her household. She becomes a figure of pure grief and despondent despair. The colour red trickles across the background, tainting her face and outline and surrounding the notifications.

Accusing her own mother to have been a witch who engineered the self-annihilation of her family, the next painting shows a gallery of deceased faces, death masks of loved ones, hovering over the living, not letting them go, threatening those who survive reminding them of their vulnerability, unspoken, unheard of, muted existences, unmentioned, not talked about, unconfronted, unquestioned. In this heavy climate of silenced death, Charlotte the artist, her grandmother, father and grandfather are almost the only survivors. Plagued by death imagery, Charlotte’s grandmother’s head is stuck in the past. A disrupted line on Charlotte’s throat, between her head and chest, suggests that she, too, will enter this shelf of deceased busts. One family member is tethered to the other, one fate infecting the next? Is it inevitable? What is to come?

The sickly green-faced woman, dressed in the colours of her daughters’ unforgettable deaths, sits on a chair, abandoned, holding her sunken head, the silhouette red, across from a sea of red outside of the window, foreshadowing an unavoidable future, she knows that history is in the making, that something is in the air, unwholesome and abysmal, closing its ranks around her and her shrunken family, something external invading the rotten internal. A resigned woman, her husband, Charlotte the artist, her father and new wife now find themselves in a 1933 Germany.

Recommended reading:

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

By Evelyn Benesch and Judith C. E. Belinfante

“Charlotte”

By David Foenkinos

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