New testaments of youth

When Charlotte Salomon fled Nazi Germany, she took her paintbrushes. Her work survived. She didn't
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In 1939 Charlotte Salomon, a 22-year old Jewish artist, was sent away from her father and stepmother's home in Berlin to stay with her maternal grandparents in the relative safety of Southern France. There, living as a refugee in Villefranche, she began to commit her turbulent family history to paper. She worked intensely, creating a scene-by-scene pictorial account of her adolescence cracked by anti-Semitism. Yet the shadow at the heart of the extraordinary work she produced is cast not only by the approaching Holocaust. While Nazi dogma forms the backdrop to her strange, painted drama, the emotional catalyst was the sudden suicide of her grandmother. It was a pivotal moment in her short life: as her grandfather struggled to cope with the bereavement, he bluntly revealed that her aunt and her mother had also committed suicide. Until that day Salomon believed her mother to have died of influenza.

Distraught and haunted by images of death, she poured herself into her art with obsessive energy, completing around 900 small paintings by 1943. Then history caught up with her. Documents recovered from the South of France show that in May 1943 she married an Austrian called Alexander Nagler and became pregnant. At the end of the summer she was picked up by the Gestapo. On October 12, at the age of 26, she was gassed in Auschwitz.

The core of Salomon's work - 769 autobiographical paintings accompanied by a strange, lyrical text - has survived intact and forms a unique kind of cinematic storyboard, or illustrated novel. The paintings usually hang in Amsterdam's Jewish Historical Museum, but this month nearly 400 have been catalogued and crated, ready for a journey to Britain. The work, which Salomon called enigmatically Life? or Theatre?, has never been shown in this country before. Next month it will appear in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Art.

The man responsible for this is Norman Rosenthal, Exhibition Secretary at the Royal Academy. He was dogged in the face of initial indifference, and his persistence has paid off. "I first proposed this exhibition fifteen years ago," he said. "And everybody was suspicious because the work was so little known. The current Picasso ceramics exhibition, for instance, was something I had wanted to do for a long time. It is just that people already like Picasso, so it was a much easier task."

Rosenthal has faith that "the incredible integrity and beauty" of Salomon's paintings will communicate powerfully with a British audience. "It is at the same time an extremely complex and a very accessible work," he says. "Salomon's visual imagination is both serious and very, very startling."

Many of the paintings take comic strip form, with detailed sequences of events contained on one sheet of paper. Often the mordant humour and cartoon layout are reminiscent of a better-known graphic work on the Holocaust, Maus, by Art Spiegelman. At other times Salomon allows one particular moment to dominate the page while a single key character is depicted several times within it, as if in animation. The more emotionally involved the story becomes, the more Salomon is drawn towards abstraction. In some cases the paintings recall the mythologising illustrative style of William Blake.

Her palette is varied, however; she switches styles. Her Berlin, for example, is shown in increasingly sombre tones, while later, in the South of France, she seems to borrow the hot colours of Dufy and the sensual lines of Bonnard. These might well have been conscious allusions. At the age of 19 Salomon was one of very few Jews admitted to the state art school in Berlin. Despite the fact that her first art master was dismissed for being married to a Jew, she was relatively secure. But Nazi ideas soon made inroads into her life. Her stepmother was told to stop singing in public, and her father was forced to give up his professorship at a general hospital.

Her response to the encroaching mood of anti-Semitism in Life? Or Theatre? includes three or four street scenes depicting Nazi rallies and brutalities. Her memory might have blurred the details (she drew the swastika the wrong way, for instance). But it captured the hot and brutal Nazi impulse in bold colours. "Destroy the Jews. Take everything you can," read the slogans she saw on Berlin's shop fronts.

Rosenthal concedes that a large part of the importance of Salomon's work is its uncanny portrayal of life under persecution. The most obvious comparison is with Anne Frank's celebrated journals. But he insists that Salomon's paintings transcend their historical significance; they are not merely documents of an extraordinary time, but products of an artistic sensibility at once bleak and humorous.

Surrounded by personal as well as political tragedy Salomon painted her own alter ego into her story. Calling herself Charlotte Kann, she fictionalised elements of her past and fashioned the libretto of a tragic operetta or "singspiel". The sequence begins with a list of dramatis personae in which Salomon sets out pseudonyms for all the central characters: her stepmother, Paula, becomes an impossibly glamorous singer called Paulinka Bimbam; her father, an eminent surgeon, becomes Dr Kann; and her first love and artistic Svengali, the music teacher Alfred Wolfsohn, is transmuted into the Byronic figure of Amadeus Daberlohn. In the isolation of her supposed sanctuary in France, Salomon imagined all the jealousies, loves and despairs of her own youth.

In particular she revisited the envious love she felt for her stepmother - a woman who at the age of 100 still lives close to the paintings' home in Amsterdam. The museum, a high-tech conversion of four Ashkenazi synagogues in the one-time Jewish quarter, is a centre for research into Salomon's life.

Paula and her late husband, Dr Albert Salomon, donated the works to the city's Jewish museum. Today, Paula Lindberg's memory has faded almost to a blank. She was once beautiful, the toast of pre-war Berlin, but now, tended by a nurse, she is fuzzy. "How sad it was in the end," she says. Yet thanks to her adoring stepdaughter we can still gaze up at Paula/Paulinka on the concert platform, we can still see her thronged by admirers at a musical soiree and watch her dressing up to charm the Nazi official who once held her husband's life in his hands. She is the only strong female character in the story. Salomon's suicidal blood relatives represent the other end of the spectrum, both in life and in art.

In the painting describing her grandmother's silent reaction to her second daughter's suicide, Salomon writes: "Mrs Knarre does not cry, but her eyes seem to penetrate the profoundest depths of the world. From the topmost tips of her hair down to the farthest joints of her small feet, her grief spreads throughout her body; it transcends her own suffering. It is the suffering of the world, the suffering of the fate that Mrs Knarre has been elected to bear."

Ralph Levie, director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, believes the work's litany of needless death is crucial to Salomon's argument about life and art. "In the paintings Charlotte makes the Wolfsohn character, Daberlohn, say that before anyone can enjoy life, they have to die in some way. And for Charlotte, as a refugee, the idea of death comes very close indeed to the moment when you can start, at last, to get something from life."

Levie's reading of the work is supported by the lyrical dialogue which accompanies Charlotte's effort to understand her grandmother's desire to kill herself. "In order to love life completely, perhaps it is necessary to embrace and comprehend its other side: death." Salomon repeatedly shows herself drawing her grandmother's attention to the light of the sun and the colour of flowers. Her vain entreaties represent the artist's own longing for beauty. Finally, after staring into the face of death, Salomon can re-embrace life - but only by choosing art. At the very end, the artist resolves to take herself "out of life for a while" and immerse herself in painting.

Salomon was as good as her alter ego's word. When she handed the finished paintings to her local doctor for safekeeping she said: "Take good care of it, it is my whole life". It is hackneyed to observe that the Holocaust cost the lives of many artists who would have gone on to shape the aesthetic temper of the postwar world, but Charlotte Salomon's paintings are resonant and unsettling proof of the opposite. In suppressing art, evil can also inspire it.

'Life? or Theatre? The Work of Charlotte Salomon' opens at the Royal Academy of Arts on 22 October.