This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article.
Ariela Freedman’s article, “Charlotte Salomon, Degenerate Art, and Modernism as Resistance,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Ariela elaborates on the cultural importance of proto-graphic novel author, Charlotte Salomon.
When I first encountered the work of Charlotte Salomon through a brief reference in Robert Peterson’s Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narrative (2010), I had two reactions. First, what is this work? And second, why haven’t I heard of it before? Peterson lists Life? Or Theatre? as a proto-graphic novel for the illustrative quality of many of the drawings, the serial narrative of the text, and the combination of word and image. That seems in some ways correct, and my article on Salomon for the comics anthology Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews (2014) traces the considerable influence Salomon had on graphic novelists and memoirists. But Salomon’s work also challenges the usual structure of the graphic novel. The images—over 1,300 of them in sequence—are painted, not drawn, and the narrative frequently and deeply references expressionist painting, early film, German operetta, and the modern novel. It operates as a container for disparate modernist forms that blur into and complicate each other.
As I learned more about Salomon, I realized that it wasn’t so much that I had discovered her but that she has had to be discovered again and again, often with a sense of wonder and consequence. Frequently, her best advocates have been writers and artists rather than academics. Jonathan Safran Foer calls Life? Or Theatre? “an antidote to indifference,” and a work that “even more than praise…demands creation” (12). Maira Kalman describes encountering Salomon’s work as “a kinship, an electric moment” (n.p.). Indeed, it does not seem like Salomon will remain obscure much longer. A growing body of critical work led by the art historian Griselda Pollock, the success of David Foenkinos’s Goncourt and Renaudot-winning 2014 novel Charlotte, a major exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam which shows the work in its entirety for the first time, and a planned animated film by the French director Bibi Bergeron (Shark’s Tale, A Monster in Paris), attest and contribute to Salomon’s growing reputation.
Salomon’s work has deservedly grown in popularity, though being more known does not mean becoming more knowable. The work remains, in her own words, “something really crazy,” by which I understand unclassifiable, mélange, wild. By labelling her own work “crazy,” Salomon evokes “les fauves,” whose painterly intensity she shares.
As I researched the era further, I realized that combining a fauvist style with a narrative of family mental illness put Salomon directly in the cross-hairs of a historical moment that pathologized and racialized modernist art as degenerate, lunatic, decadent, and infectious. Salomon attended the State Arts Academy in Berlin in 1938, the year the “Degenerate Art” or “Entarte Kunst” show toured the city. The show, intended as an act of vilification, defacement, and purgation, was also an unprecedented opportunity to see modernist art. Artists including Hannah Hoch and Willi Baumeister attended, not to participate in the defamation of the work but to be inspired by it. Some of these artists made artworks directly in response to the show. We do not know for certain that Salomon attended, but her classmate Barbara Frisch-Petzel testified that Salomon would certainly have gone. Intriguingly, the exhibition incorporated text extensively, defacing the walls with screeds that labelled and libeled the artwork. In my article, I argue that the “Degenerate Art” exhibition is a compelling site for Salomon’s encounter with modernist art and an important precedent for her own use of text with image, which challenges the defamation of modern art as degeneracy.
Recently, Salomon scholarship has been rocked by the discovery of additional pages from Life? Or Theatre? suppressed by Salomon’s family, a revelation first recorded in Frans Weisz’s 2012 documentary. These pages extend the epilogue and confess to a serious crime: the murder of her grandfather. Since Salomon’s artwork is so often read as confessional, her fictional confession has been received as testimony. I consign this scandal to a footnote for a couple of reasons. First, the final—and most damning—page of the confession is missing. We have it in typescript, and only on the authority of the filmmaker, who cannot produce it. More importantly, I agree with Griselda Pollock that to read the work as confession is to misunderstand the “theatre” in the “life,” the degree to which Salomon’s narrative is crafted, invented, and staged. Indeed, it would be a true scandal for the recent resurgence of interest in Salomon’s work to be eclipsed by an unprovable, morally ambiguous, and fictionally framed confession.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Charlotte Salomon: Through the Eyes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernice Eisenstein, and Ernst van Alphen. Amsterdam: Jewish Historical Museum, 2010.
Freedman, Ariela. “Charlotte Salomon, Graphic Artist.” Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews. Ed. Sarah Lightman. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 35-50.
Peterson, Robert. Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels. Westport: Praeger, 2010.
Pollock, Griselda. “Recalling Charlotte Salomon.” London: Times Literary Supplement. 14 Nov. 2017. Web. 4 Dec. 2017.
Steinhauer, Jillian. “Q&A: Maira Kalman on the Illustrating Life.” Web. 4 Dec. 2017. https://forward.com/schmooze/136002/q-and-a-maira-kalman-on-the-illustrating-life/.
Ariela Freedman is an associate professor in the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University in Montreal.
More from the Journal of Modern Literature 41.1
Editor's Introduction: Modernist Modes of Resistance
Paula Marantz Cohen
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