TO PAINT HER LIFE: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era by Mary Lowenthal Felstiner
Kirkus Star

TO PAINT HER LIFE: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

An unusual biography of an artist who herself painted an unusual autobiography before she was murdered at Auschwitz. Felstiner (History/San Francisco State Univ.) moves fluidly between biography, history (with a feminist angle), and art criticism as she fleshes out the brief life of Charlotte Salomon and examines the factors--personal and historical--that influenced her art and determined her fate. Neither the young Charlotte nor her origins were promising: Her mother, her aunt, and other family members committed suicide. Though from a well-to-do Berlin Jewish family, the young art student was described by a contemporary as ""withdrawn, serious, pale, tall and nondescript."" Yet the advent of the Nazis, her love affair with the mesmerizing musician Alfred Wolfsohn, exile to France and temporary internment there as an ""undesirable alien,"" and then a relatively peaceful time on the Côte d'Azur -- all these contributed to a remarkable artistic outpouring in 1941--42 that resulted in her masterwork, Life? or Theater? (published here in 1981). Charlotte called it a Singespiel, or operetta: 769 painted pages accompanied by text and music. Felstiner terms it Salomon's attempt to create a lasting self in a family where self-obliteration was the rule and at a time when the obliteration of her people was being effected. Complementing Charlotte's carefully shaped, personal narrative with her own more complete, thoroughly researched one, Felstiner also threads in the life of Alois Brunner, the brutal SS officer who ordered the deportation that brought Charlotte to Auschwitz, where she died at the age of 26. Felstiner buttresses her account with fascinating background details; discussing the suicide of Charlotte's mother, for instance, she offers evidence that German Jews had an extraordinarily high suicide rate at the time. Felstiner closes with the romantic notion that Salomon's Life? or Theater? is the triumph of art over evil. But overall, this artfully told account leaves one hungry to experience Salomon's unique legacy firsthand.

Pub Date: July 27th, 1994
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: HarperCollins