Salomon’s art offers key comparisons with Anne Frank’s story, diary

SKOKIE — Like so many others who have seen Charlotte Salomon’s extraordinary collection of autobiographical art, Gillian Walnes could not help but think of a young writer whose life was also brutally cut short by Nazi genocide.

Walnes was hardly the first to draw comparisons between Salomon, the Jewish-German born artist who left behind a meticulously rendered series of unbearably intimate drawings — a mind-boggling series, really — and Anne Frank, the iconic teenager who left behind a diary inspiring generations throughout the world.

Walnes’ perspective, though, carries a bit more weight since she serves as the cofounder and executive director of the Anne Frank Trust UK. Not surprisingly, she first saw the Salomon exhibition years before a new version went on display this summer at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.

While recently visiting family in Wilmette, Walnes came to Skokie for another look at Salomon’s art, touring the exhibition with Pioneer Press. The tour re-emphasized for her some of the similarities between Charlotte Salomon and Anne Frank and the immeasurable value of their timeless Holocaust creations.

What the two did not share in common, however, was the breadth of their legacies.

Anne Frank has become iconic, her diary having been read almost everywhere and handed out in classrooms of new generations of students; Salomon’s works have remained a much lesser-known treasure, although they increasingly have become more public — through exhibitions, books, a documentary film and now an opera that just opened in Salzburg.

And yet, it remains a surprise when people have not heard of Anne Frank but common when Charlotte Salomon is a new name to them.

Charlotte Salomon’s art

“In terms of Charlotte, you have her wonderful works of art, the way she expresses herself in the art, but also in the writing, actually,” Walnes says. “It’s quite phenomenal. I have forgotten that aspect of Charlotte Salomon’s work.”

Salomon created more than 1,300 gouache paintings, the majority completed between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France. Captured by the Nazis while pregnant in 1943, she was killed at age 26 in Auschwitz. Before she perished, she had left her robust autobiographical collection to a local doctor and had asked him to protect it.

“Life? Or Theater?,” as she called her lyrical operetta of paintings that begin even before her own birth, features Salomon’s writing as well — first on the reverse side of the drawings and then directly on the drawings themselves.

The works, beautifully drawn in exquisite detail, catalog monumental events in Salomon’s and her family’s lives — intensely painful ones including suicides that ran on the female side of her family and more infrequently joyful ones including weddings and births.

Anne Frank’s diary covered a more concentrated time in the author’s life, a narrowly focused perspective on the micro and macro events that she was experiencing day to day.

“We all know about Anne Frank, the writer and how she articulates most importantly what it feels like to be the victim of persecution, what it feels like to be hated,” Walnes said. “And that transcends itself to giving young people an understanding of: ‘OK, we’re not living in that situation but maybe I can understand what that kid who is being bullied in the playground is actually feeling.’”

This is one reason Walnes surmises that Anne Frank’s diary has found a wider audience. Her chronicle expresses understandable fear in deadly dangerous times but all through the prism of a girl coming of age.

Anne Frank died at age 15 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; she was 11 years younger than Charlotte Salomon when the latter was killed in Auschwitz.

But another key difference may have to do with what happened to the works after their creators were killed. Salomon’s family initially knew nothing about “Life? Or Theater?,” while Otto Frank, Anne’s father and an Auschwitz survivor, was determined to make his daughter’s diary accessible.

Following the war, when Otto Frank read Anne’s complete diary for the first time, he realized he had never fully known her — despite living with her for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“He decided he was going to use the legacy of his daughter for a general force for good,” Walnes says. “He was on a mission.”

It took a good 10 years before Charlotte Salomon’s parents turned over “Life? Or Theater?” to a museum. That may have been because some of the events Charlotte depicted were private and could have been difficult for her father to share with the world, Walnes speculated.

(Otto Frank also found some passages in Anne’s diary — especially about Anne’s mother — difficult, and a Roman Catholic publishing company removed other explicit passages about Anne’s physical development into adolescence. It wasn’t until 1997 when the full, unexpurgated diary was finally published).

Even with some important differences between them, it’s easy to see why Anne Frank’s name surfaces in many of the appreciations of Charlotte Salomon’s collection. The diary and drawings share characteristics of intimacy and authenticity, and the outside world increasingly moves in on their lives; Anne never reached adulthood, Charlotte never reached middle age.

Unlike Anne Frank, Salomon was already an adult when she began creating her paintings. The figure she drew most often in “Life? Or Theater?” was Alfred Wolfsohn (known in her paintings as Amadeus Daberlohn), someone with whom Salomon was certainly infatuated, although it’s unclear whether they had a romance.

Charlotte doesn’t necessarily transform as “a character” in “Life? Or Theater?” the way we feel Anne Frank does when reading her words.

“With Anne, it’s about that transition from childhood to adolescence, your place in the world, that very difficult time when you’re trying to learn about yourself and who you are and that responsibility of growing up,” Walnes said.

Anne Frank was the subject of an earlier traveling exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and her story is represented in the upstairs permanent exhibition as well.

Walnes first got involved with Anne Frank in 1988 when she helped with a traveling exhibition about her in the United Kingdom. She later visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and successfully made the case that there needed to be a British representative.

Two years later, Walnes and others founded the Anne Frank Trust in the United Kingdom, which has continued to grow over the years.

Anne Frank would have turned 85 in June. The 70th anniversary of her last diary entry and the Franks’ arrest have just past. Her story has no limited shelf life; it remains a timeless testament to courage and hope during the most unimaginable danger, an honest account of a girl developing into a teenager as the world around her is turning horrifically upside down.

Charlotte Salomon would be turning 97 in October. What she has left is an equally valuable expression, an intimate work of beautifully-created personal art that deserves to be preserved forever.

“I would love to do everything I can to get more people to know about this,” Walnes says about Salomon’s art. “It needs to be seen by young people because that’s the most important audience. It needs to be seen just as Anne Frank’s diary needs to be read.”

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