Archive for Contemporary Jewish Museum

Life? or Theater? at the CJM/SF

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Above average.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

From 1940 to 1942, while hiding in the South of France from the worsening situation in Nazi Germany, Charlotte Salomon devoted herself wholeheartedly and relentlessly to the realization of a fictionalized autobiography, Life? or Theater?: A Play With Music.  The resulting opus—769 of gouache paintings with text and musical references (edited from the over 1,300 pages she completed) —is a triumph of mixed-media storytelling, a richly thematic and profusely imaginative narrative.

The marriage of Franziska and Albert, Charlotte*s parents, imagined to the tune "We twine for thee the maidens wreath" (from von Webers "Der Freischütz")

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

The 300 pages currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (through July 31) encapsulate the essence of the work well enough; I wish there had been some of the pages from Salomon’s art school days. They evoke a happy sense of belonging that was missing for me in most of the rest of the work. Viewers hungry for more may want to consult Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, which catalogs the entire oeuvre.


Charlotte: Why doesn*t she come, my Mummy—she promised.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Life? or Theater? traces the arc of a fictional Charlotte’s (Kann) life from infancy to young adulthood. On the simplest level the narrative is about the close relationships of her life, though it actually begins before the fictional Charlotte’s birth with the courtship and subsequent marriage of her parents.  Like her creator, Kann lives in Berlin between the wars. She is the only child in a prosperous middle-class German-Jewish family. The people who intersected Salomon’s real life are given similar aliases here—Papa and Mama Kann (like Salomon’s mother, Mrs. Kann commits suicide while Charlotte is a young child); stepmother, Paulinka Bimbam (Paula Salomon-Lindberg); grandparents Knarres (Grunwalds); and perhaps most importantly Paulinka’s voice coach Albert Daberlohn (Albert Wolfsohn) with whom Kann/Salomon becomes utterly infatuated.


I*ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

I’ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. .

Throughout Life? or Theater? the tension is palpable—between Charlotte and her family, between her and Daberlohn (it’s not clear whether her infatuation was ever more), between the Jewish struggle for acceptance through assimilation and impending destruction.  On a deeper level Life? or Theater? operates as subtle commentary on the range of culture available to middle class German-Jews in Berlin between the wars. Trips to Venice and Rome, recitals and concerts, schooling in art, literature and philosophy are all referenced in Life? or Theater? with imagination, poignancy and sometimes even sarcasm.

The German Jews, of whom each one is so preoccupied with himself that at a dinner party a silent observer feels as if he were in a goose pen. Albert—"First of all I*m sending away my daughter." Woman to his right—"And were going to Australia!" Man to her right—"And what will you do?" Sculptor—And I*ll go to the United States and become the greatest sculptor in the world." Paulinka—"We*ll be staying here for the time being." Mr. Blähn—"And I*ll go to the United States and there Ill become the greatest singer in the world." Daberlohn*s fiancée—"And were going to American, aren*t we Mucki. . ." Maid—"Take this piece, Professor, it*s the best one."

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

In the main section Life? or Theater? is punctuated with references to the growing persecution of Jews. While sometimes direct, they are just as often oblique, such as the series of paintings depicting Charlotte leaving Berlin for France. Salomon was apparently a quiet and timid girl; the paintings are commentary, not the biting satire of Georg Grosz.

Der Stürmer, organ of popular enlightenment. The Jew has made only money from your blood. The Jewish bosses financed the World War. The Jew has deceived and betrayed you, so— German men and women. Take your revenge!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you*ll have by far a better life. Hunt the swine until he sweats and smash his windowpanes to bits. April 1, 1933—Boycott the Jews! Whoever buys from any Jew, himself a filthy swine is too.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


Amadeus Daberlohn, prophet of song, enters to the tune of the Toreador*s Song from Carmen.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

True to her rich cultural upbringing Salomon was said to have an endless repertory of musical references in her head, and was observed singing while she worked.  No doubt this is why conceived of music as an integral part of the experience of Life? or Theater? to recall musical bits.  In the Prologue,  Salomon describes the role of music in her work:

The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. She is painting. A tune suddenly enters her mind. As she starts to hum it, she notices that the tune exactly matches what she is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in her head, and she starts to sing the tune, with her own words, over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete. . . The author has tried—as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section—to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.

While his face is being worked on, the following is taking place in his mind. The vision dominating his senses blends color and music: out of a confusion of swirling lines a theatrical mask of Paulinka takes shape.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

At first go around, one might be tempted to judge Salomon a naive painter. She did have formal training in art, however, through enrollment in both arts high school and college.   Possibly she rejected more academic styles for this intimate work. Though very little of Salomon’s other work survives to compare, on the Life? or Theater? pages one clearly sees sophisticated influences—of the Expressionists, post-Impressionists, Fauves—and stylistic similarities (to Chagall in particular, as well as references to Michelangelo and Giotto.

And again, when I saw these two pictures, I was reminded of the essay by that other young girl. She makes it very clear: when she is happy and begins to paint, bright colors and red and yellow dots flow from her brush, and when her mood is dark her colors turn dusky gray. And it should of course be noted that this applies regardless of the subject the artist has in mind. When, as in these two pictures, the spiritual mood at the moment of creation happens to coincide wit the despair-filled theme "Death and the Maiden," the result, together with the optimistic "Meadow with the Yellow Flowers," is—on a very minor scale of course—true art. . . My discovery of the similarity between what young girls produce and what certain geniuses produce is completely justified. Like young girls. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Amazingly, Salomon used just the three primary colors and white for her paintings. The blue of depression, the yellow of joy, the red of passion were her pictorial language. The 769 compositions are amazingly varied—scenes move freely between achingly intimate tête-à-têtes, sequential scenes bound together on a single page, boisterous group gatherings, “talking head” monologues and crowd activities.

For a long time I was covered by the earth. And I woke up among the corpses. And when I then miraculously came home again, I had partially lost my memory.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


High on a cliff grow pepper trees—softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies and melts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams—my dreams on a blue surface...

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Beyond the thematic complexity, the inventive compositions and fetching use of color the most intriguing aspect of Life? or Theater? is the message embodied by the work itself.   Four-months pregnant, Salomon was murdered, almost certainly upon her arrival, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Thus, Life? or Theater? exists as a most poignant reminder that art is tangible evidence of a life lived. Art  affirms life.

The circumstances of Life? or Theater? suggest another, equally significant, nuance—the power of art to affirm life as it is being lived. Salomon conceived Life? or Theater? in the throes of deep despair. Having learned of the dark secret of her family—the suicides of many of her female relatives—Charlotte felt a mounting pressure to do the same. This project saved her. As she recounts in the Epilogue: “And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”  Perhaps then it should be no mystery why Charlotte Salomon named her fictional protagonist “Kann,” the first-person conjugate of the German verb können. I can, affirmation of being alive.

Charlotte Salomon gave herself to this work with the ferocity of someone fighting for her life.

. . . there awoke in a suffering yet somewhat aloof creature a sense of helplessness of all those who try to grasp at straws in the most violent thunderstorms. Despite her utter weakness, however, she refused to be drawn into the circle of the straw-graspers. . . and remained alone with her experiences and her paint brush. Yet, in the long run, to live day and night like this became intolerable even to a creature thus predisposed. And she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric.Thus in the presence of the scorching sun, purple sea, and luxuriant blossoms, the memory of an experience of her fervid early love came back to her. And she tried to visualize that face, that figure. . . For she discovered that her figure might possibly preserve her from suicide inasmuch as she remembered one of Amadeus*s favorite utterances: Love, know thyself first in order to love thy neighbor. And then: one has to go into oneself—into one*s childhood—to be able to get out of oneself. . . then she did not have to kill herself like her ancestors, for according to his method one can be resurrected in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died. . . And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came: Life? or Theater?

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Charlotte and her father Albert Salomon, ca. 1927-28

Wider Connections

The complete Life? or Theater? opus—Reading Charlotte Salomon

Michael Kimmelman— The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. Among the 10 essays in this book “The Art of Maximizing Your Time” offers a  most beautiful mediation on the redemptive power of art, as evidenced through the work of Salomon, Eva Hesse and Jay deFeo.

Venetian Red“A Different Canvas: Raoul Dufy”

Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Design, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Painting with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.

I don’t want to trudge up insane mountains or through war-torn lands.
Just a nice stroll through hill and dale.

But now I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to
see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.
—Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, The Inauguration. At Last.
from And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog, New York Times
January 29, 2009

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Maira Kalman is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author who is perhaps best-known for her New Yorker covers, children’s books and illustrated And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog for the New York Times. She also created an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 2005. In Various Illuminations,” we get a glimpse of Kalman’s other pursuits—including photography, textile design, embroidery and set design.

Maira Kalman, Self-portrait with Pete, 2004-5
Gouache on paper, 16″ x 15″

Kalman has lived in New York since the age of 4, when she moved with her family from Tel Aviv. In New York and on her travels, she walks everywhere, taking photographs and turning many of them into small gouache paintings. Kalman has an engaging narrative style—her stories immediately grab you and draw you in. Her sense of color is exhilarating. Kalman’s work is joyful, sad, humorous and witty—and her objects and people seem to embody a touching faith that the world around them, in spite of all the lurking chaos and danger, will ultimately protect them. She brings your attention to ordinary objects—tea cups, cakes, sofas—in a way that illuminates their essence.

Kalman’s interiors and portraits bring to mind the work of another favorite artist of mine, Florine Stettheimer. Like Stettheimer, Kalman infuses her portraits with the emotional and intellectual energy of the sitter—the flattened, vividly-colored surfaces come alive with cherished objects and artifacts that define the sitter’s interests and personality.

Maira Kalman, Kitty Carlisle Hart

Maira Kalman, Marie Antoinette

Maira Kalman, Emily Dickinson

Kalman wrote an entertaining illustrated essay (see below) about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Mad About the Metropolitan, for the May-June 2008 issue of Departures Magazine.


What I’ve always admired most about Kalman’s work is her humanity—she manages to portray vulnerability and bravery in equal measure. Her work is completely free of irony and cynicism—she delights in the ordinary, finds the charm in everyday objects and has a boundless enthusiasm for looking at things and turning them into art—an impulse that is nicely summed up in the quote below:

I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.

Kalman’s show is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 26, 2010.

Wider Connections
Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty
Maira Kalman, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

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