Monday 20 November 2017

What Lies Beneath: Self-portrait by Charlotte Salomon

Self-portrait by Charlotte Salomon, Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Self-portrait by Charlotte Salomon
Self-portrait by Charlotte Salomon

Niall MacMonagle

John Berger in Ways of Seeing asked us to look at Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, a powerful, atmospheric and beautifully energetic work. He then asked us to turn the page. There, again, the very same painting and an accompanying note: "This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself."

Everything changes. The swirling brushstrokes, the frenzied wheatfield, the crows in jagged flight, have become part of a suicide story.

This self-portrait by 23-year-old Charlotte Salomon is of a strong, intelligent woman. Against a soft, silky ivory background, Salomon positions herself to the left and, turning towards the viewer, her steady look is direct.

The bold colours, the chestnut hair, the navy blouse do not distract from the compelling expression. The strong, graceful neck, elegant eyebrows, fine nose, lips, that wisp of hair by her right ear and the eyes capture a presence, a woman alive at a moment of time.

That Charlotte Salomon, aged 26 and pregnant with her first child, was gassed at Auschwitz on October 10, 1943 turns this portrait tragic. Biographical details darken and deepen our response.

David Foenkinos's unforgettable, poetic novel, Charlotte, published three years ago, has sold over half a million copies in France. Now translated into 19 languages, Foenkinos tells Salomon's story.

Born in Berlin in 1917 to a prosperous German-Jewish family, she studied painting but Nazism meant that when she won an art prize, her professors decided she could not receive the trophy. Charlotte suggested that her blonde friend Barbara receive it instead, and never returned to the academy.

Her life was shadowed by death. Her mother, aunt and six other family members took their own lives. Some escaped to the Netherlands, the US, the South of France where Charlotte herself lived with her grandparents in Villefranche-sur-Mer - before being captured and sent to her death.

Foenkinos quotes Billy Wilder from 1945: "The optimists died in the gas chambers; the pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills."

Talented Charlotte Salomon was an optimist; she loved life and the new life she carried when, as Foenkinos puts it, "naked under the cold light" they entered "the showers" and were murdered.

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