I settled into one of the sofas so as to not feel quite so conspicuous and struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, an older, entertainment lawyer. It turned out that he had known my father slightly as an upperclassman at University of Pennsylvania Law School. My father had died several years earlier at the age of 73. It was the only time I ever met anyone outside of the family who had known my father as a young man. He told me, "Your father had a huge mind."
Later in the evening, our host, Marty noticed me looking at one of the paintings on his walls, learned that I was a painter and set things in motion for my first ever painting commission of his two step-children.
On the heels of that encounter, a Dutch producer chatted me up. When he learned that I was an artist and musician, he took out one of his business cards, knelt down beside me, wrote a date, time and place on the back, told me that my name would be at the door and that, no matter what, I must attend the screening of a film called "Charlotte". I did.
The screening was at the Directors Guild and there were only a handful of people in the audience. After the screening, the producer invited me to dinner with the director and a few others. I gave one of the group a lift to the restaurant in my messy VW Bug. As we approached my car, he said, "I used to have one of these!" I later learned that he was one of the top Dutch bankers at the time and the rest of the group had a good laugh when they saw him climbing out of the passenger seat in front of the restaurant.
The producer sat me next to the director, Frans Weisz, with whom I began a long friendship. Before he left Los Angeles, Frans gave me a copy of the newly published, very heavy Viking book, Charlotte: Life or Theater?
It is an understatement to say that, at 26, I identified with the subject of the film and the book. Over and over again, through the years, I showed friends and acquaintances the book and told them the story of Charlotte and how, in 1975, Frans and Judith Herzberg set out to gather background information in order to make a film about her.
In the process, they interviewed Charlotte's father at the very end of his life, her step-mother, an associate who possessed papers in which he described Charlotte, the wife of the doctor to whom Charlotte entrusted her work, and others who had known her. They also discovered additional paintings that had been treasured privately over the years. They walked around the grounds of the Villa where Charlotte spent her final years.
To a large degree, it is because of the dedication of Frans Weisz and Judith Herzberg that attention was brought to Charlotte Salomon and her work at all.
It was another dozen years before Charlotte’s story and work started entering the mainstream. Then, only in the framework of Holocaust studies. Now, after decades of the development of academic art history programs, and a few generations of art history scholars, you can easily read about her story here.
In 1996, on my first tour of Europe as a singer songwriter, I visited the Joods Historische Museum in Amsterdam, where I saw some of Charlotte’s original gouaches. Later that fall, I spent about two weeks making small watercolors along the Côte d'Azur, including a couple of days in Villefranche-sur-mer, where Charlotte spent the last years of her life. Standing on these steps to the sea, I was not very far at all from where she created Life? or Theater?
I completely missed the documentary Frans made in 2012, Life? or Theater? and would still very much like to see that with English subtitles but it's more or less impossible to watch in the US. Having published that statement, my dear friend, Mineke sent me a link to the original Dutch version of the doc which you may watch here. Still, that is not yet the end of Charlotte's story!
In a nutshell, this is my personal history with Charlotte Salomon as she and her work were revealed to me and the world.
Before closing, I recommend an excellent book of biographical fiction based on Charlotte's life by David Foenkinos called, what else?, Charlotte. I could not understand how anyone might pull such a thing off without pictures but when I started reading the book, I could not put it down. With all that I have learned, I think it's a pretty great book.
Life? or Theater? Good question. What will the next act bring?
One thing that fascinates me about studying the history, the lives and work of artists (of all forms of art), is not only how individual creative expression evolves over a lifetime, but also how attention to and perception of artists and their work changes, sometimes dramatically, over the years.
I am interested in how artists will evolve now. Now, that the state of the earth and culture and society are shifting so dramatically. It’s a nice to imagine that we can “go back to normal”, but I think that ship has sailed. Normal, at least in the last forty years or so has been sort of insane anyway, in my opinion. Longer, but definitely since the start of 1981.
How creatives will evolve now is what I am after in the Artist’s Way course I am about to open. I’m really not interested in people making more stuff (though we'll probably make some stuff). I’m wondering if we can transform creative experience and expression into a different sort of paradigm. If this piques your interest, get in touch. I’ll be opening the course to a small group soon.
©2021 Suzanne McDermott