About Charlotte Salomon's work


Nearly eight hundred paintings

Charlotte Salomon told her life story in a unique artwork of almost eight hundred gouaches (opaque watercolours) overlaid with transparent sheets packed with text and musical references.

She gave herself and the people around her theatrical aptronyms and portrayed them as characters in a musical stage play.

She exposed her characters in ruthless detail, blending fact with fiction, leaving the observer to wonder: is this life, or is it theatre?

"And she envisaged all the beauty with dreamed-awake eyes and knew: she would have to abandon the social façade for a while to be able to delve deep and refashion her world."

Charlotte Salomon

Three-part song-play

Life? or Theatre? is crafted in the form of a musical stage performance with acts and scenes. It begins with a prologue, followed by the main body of the work, and finishes with an epilogue. Charlotte Salomon explains the structure and the characters in the introductory gouaches.

The announcement of the three-part song-play, as Salomon describes the work, is painted using the three primary colours: blue for the prologue, red for the story and yellow for the epilogue.

The prologue deals with Salomon’s early years in Berlin, until 1937. The story is about her passion for voice coach Alfred Wolfsohn, and his affairs with both her and her stepmother, opera singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg. The epilogue covers Salomon’s live in southern France from 1939 to 1942.

Use of colour

Charlotte Salomon presents her work in a series of gouaches designed as a theatre programme. Her preface is followed by a list of characters. These all have aptronyms: names that reflect a personal quality.

The gouaches are loosely structured. Salomon painted without contours, while the sheets are divided by haphazard lines. Her palette is a bright mix of colour. Yet the spectrum is made up entirely of the three primary colours and white.

While these may be used to create every other colour, it’s unusual for artists to use no other pigment. It’s unclear whether Salomon did this for practical reasons or that she deliberately chose to restrict her palette.

Image and style

As the work progresses, the style changes. The early brightly-coloured detailed narrative scenes make way for more roughly sketched mood drawings.

The brushstrokes are more hastily applied, as if Salomon knew that she her remaining time was limited.

Yet the sparse lines with which she delineates each person’s character remain unchanged.

For example, grandfather Knarre’s pose invariably conveys his stubborn attitude, and the seductive singer Paulinka Bimbam is hardly ever without her ubiquitous double chin.

Cinematic influence

Charlotte Salomon grew up in an age in which film had developed from black-and-white and silent to colour and sound.

Her work resembles a cinematic storyboard, with several shots in a single frame, sudden close-ups and images that zoom in or out. These all occur frequently. The many speaking heads, changing their expression as they deliver their monologue, are a lot like drawings for animation films.

Salomon’s hugely inspirational voice coach Alfred Wolfsohn (Amadeus Daberlohn in Life? or Theatre?) had ideas about film which she remembered well.

He saw film as the medium in which modern artists could explore new depths to find insight and healing.

"People need to explore their innermost being before they can venture beyond the self. For me, one way to go beyond the self is film, the mechanism that enables people to create their own ego."

Amadeus Daberlohn