Visual Arts: Scenes from a past life

A Holocaust victim's work could easily become a martyr's relic. But Charlotte Salomon's paintings are a rare work of art.
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The Independent Culture
Modernism never had much time for stories. "When I see the Giotto frescoes in Padua," wrote Henri Matisse, "I do not trouble myself to recognise which scene of the life of Christ I have before me, but I immediately understand the sentiment which emerges from it, for it is in the lines, the composition, the colour." An extreme view. But even those who like a picture to tell a story expect it to be fairly short. And what's on show at the Royal Academy now must be the longest modern story-in-pictures ever told.

Charlotte Salomon's Life? Or Theatre? is a sequence of 780 gouache paintings. She painted them between 1940 and 1942, in her mid-twenties (actually, she painted nearly twice that number, and edited them down). Stylewise they vary: sometimes childlike, sometimes rather like Dufy, sometimes panicky expressionism. Most of the pictures have a written text too, narrative and dialogue, either painted on a covering sheet of tracing paper or directly on the image. They're divided up into acts and scenes. They tell - in fictional form, in tragi-comic mode - her own story and her family's.

Salomon was born in 1917 in Berlin, grew up in a cultured Jewish milieu. When she was eight her mother died. Her father remarried, to a classical singer. The emotional centre of Life? Or Theatre? is the tricky and intense three-way relationship between the teenage Charlotte, her glamorous stepmother, and her stepmother's brainy, tormented singing teacher. The Nazi persecutions are beginning. At arts school, Charlotte was the only Jew.

In 1938 she was sent away to her maternal grandparents' on the Cote d'Azur. At the start of the war, her grandmother killed herself. She learnt then that her mother's death had also been suicide, and that various other family members had also killed themselves in the past. She and her grandfather were interned in France. On release, she lived alone and produced Life? Or Theatre? In 1943 she married another refugee and became pregnant. They were transported to Auschwitz and killed. Shortly before her arrest, Salomon gave the portfolio to a local doctor: "Take care of it; it is my whole life."

So the work survived, and ended up in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, from where it's on loan. But we can see now that there were other good reasons to take care of it. It's a work whose maker's life, times and death are liable to obscure its artistry. It can too easily become either a holocaust martyr's relic or a psycho-historical document. Not that it isn't those things. But it's also a very original work of art.

Take the prodigious length of the work. It can be a source of wonder in itself - the measure of Salomon's heroic-cum-obsessional act of witness. But it's also what makes the work so original. There's no precedent I can think of for a pictorial narrative sequence on this scale. It's not the length as such that's admirable. It's the way it opens up a new repertoire of creative possibilities.

True, it's not quite uncharted ground. There are comparisons. Life? Or Theatre? has points in common with cartoon strips, illustrated tales, flip-books even - and with cinema itself. But these comparisons only point us to the range of tricks a long pictorial narrative might deploy, and it seems extremely wide. We're not disappointed, either. From the start, Salomon is in command of her richly hybrid genre.

She flexes tempos: sometimes bags of story are packed into a single busy sheet, sometimes a single encounter will be paced out for pages. She adapts style to character and mood. She stages significant visual repetitions (the shape of grandmother's defenestrated body echoes that of mother's). She drops visual references. She juxtaposes dramatically. She plays with points of view and mind's eye visions. She plays word against image, image against image etc.

I think it's these slight, continual, varying incongruities that let Salomon achieve such a good relationship with her past self. She can be both sensibly detached and wholeheartedly identified. She knows better without looking down. She neither cossets nor abjures. You feel this especially in the account of her relationship with the singing teacher, Daberlohn, pictured alternately as a figure of fascinating romance and a Nietzschean nerd; while Charlotte's pursuit of him is confused but valiant. It's exemplary autobiography. And behind it all is the fact that while language can say "I", pictures never quite can.

This form is so resourceful, in fact, that it's not obvious how to show it. Salomon certainly meant it for the public eye, but beyond that - well, should it be a book or an exhibition? There's a case for either. Some of the sequences seem to demand a turn of the page, as when her suicidal mother stands morosely at the window - and the next sheet shows the open window and the empty room.

The "jump" would be lost if the sheets were laid out along a gallery wall. But for other, less sudden effects, a layout is just what's needed. Following her mother's death, the gradual "recovery" from a gloomy, murky colour scheme to something much brighter and crisper - it happens over several sheets - is best seen when they're up in a line.

A sense of sequence, at any rate, is crucial, and I'm afraid the way it's displayed in the RA's Sackler Galleries isn't right at all. Typically, sets of six sheets are framed together, in two rows of three, creating quite irrelevant visual groupings. What's more, the English translations of Salomon's texts are set on a panel underneath. They should be much nearer to their images, if only for the sake of the images which don't have any words added. Salomon uses these "silent" sheets sparingly and powerfully. Having to cross-refer to a caption, which then says "No text" ruins the effect.

Of course, this is a sensible economy measure. Displaying the pictures properly, in continuous single file with words adjacent, would take up too much space. As it is, the exhibition has only room for just over half of the series, and it's the largest showing to date. But I suppose that even the whole set, in ideal viewing conditions, wouldn't really work either - because no one ever spends four hours in a gallery, and that's about what you'd need.

But audience attention spans aren't the only problem. For all her invention, Salomon herself misses any number of tricks, and who wouldn't? The extended pictorial narrative is a form with so many possible levels and complexities to be worked out, that it must seem prohibitive to any artist who values their time. Perhaps it could only be conceived and carried through by an artist in the deepest trouble who didn't expect to have long.

Charlotte Salomon - `Life? Or Theatre?': Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1; until 17 January; admission pounds 5.50

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