A Life Told in Paint

It's a rare if not unique treasure to see a life measured out in paintings. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is currently showing 300 of Charlotte Salomon's autobiographical frames under the label, chosen by her, of "Life? Or Theater?"

She depicted the scenes as an alternative to committing suicide, while hiding from the Nazis in the south of France and after learning that her grandmother's Selbstmord (as they say in German) was one of eight in her family, including her mother and the aunt after whom she was named.

Her art is distinguished by an operatic flair, in a style that owes as much to the genius of the best comics (such as Art Spiegelman's Maus) as to Chagall. Her paintings show the growing up of a Berlin girl in a wealthy family and, in the distance, the rise of the Nazi machine that led to her death in Auschwitz at age 26. Salomon was only about 16 when Hitler came to power, 22 when the world war began.

I walked through the San Francisco exhibition with a painter who, like Salomon, has worked mainly in gouache (opaque watercolor), and who was struck, first, by Salomon's stunning color sense, such as the use of moss and tree greens against oranges and outlines in emergency-vehicle red. Some frames are simple figures, while others show several scenes, or the same scene as it develops, such as the artist at her drawing board.

In a brief catalogue introduction, the museum notes that "with a mixture of warmth and aloof observation Charlotte portrays herself, her family, and the people she loves." Some of Salomon's paintings are full of words (mostly in German) fitted into the frames instead of only below them as captions. In many of the frames, we see not the looming disaster, but scenes from a culture (wealthy Jewish Berlin), as studied by a sometimes satirical child or young person. At a dinner party, for example, she watches each of guests "so preoccupied with himself" as to remind her of a pen full of self-important bustling geese.

I saw Salomon's work first at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, a city where Jews who were murdered by the Nazis once worshipped in synagogues now converted into galleries. (Though the Netherlands has long been known for its tolerance, a higher percentage of Jews from that country were murdered than from any other in Western Europe.) Salomon's work survived, as of course did Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, which was written in hiding in the same city where Salomon's parents survived and where her work ended up. We don't know how much painting and prose has never come to light.

The most sensitive and informed book on Salomon is by Mary Felstiner, a professor of history at San Francisco State.

If you are near San Francisco until mid October, consider stopping by the museum, which is located downtown in a vast repurposed electrical generating station, itself worth a visit. Salomon depicts the drama of the childhood everybody loses, the pain of lost love, the integuments of a lost world. Her genius was to preserve all that and to draw us into gratefully looking with her.

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