Life? Or Theatre? | Pushing the Wave

Life? Or Theatre?

Opinion, 2 June 2023
by L.A. Davenport
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Charlotte Salomon, at Lenbachhaus
After Mannheim, I went straight to another German city, and a favourite of mine: Munich.

Over the years I have been going there, sometimes for work, sometimes for pleasure, latterly for both, I have each time discovered a new side of the capital of Bavaria, a facet that had hitherto remained hidden to me.

That I should do so again this time, in the soft yellows of the early summer sun, is perhaps not so much of a surprise, as I managed to meet up with a friend who has lived all her life there.

She took me on a long walk of the city, through the verdant parks to where the townsfolk hang out to enjoy the sunset, and the next day she recommended a gallery that was open late on a Thursday, if I needed to clear my head after a long day of work.

The Lenbachhaus is a rather fascinating museum in which a stridently modern building has been tacked onto the former residence of Franz von Lenbach to create a series of intimate spaces that are separated enough to feel entirely isolated while you are going round them.

Not everything I saw appealed or I felt particularly worked, especially the rather desolate works by Joseph Beuys, some of which I had coincidentally seen in Mannheim, but one exhibition I saw on my way round, Group Dynamics, The Blue Rider, stood out a mile.

This large, fascinating and rather innovative exhibition details the production of an almanac, The Blue Rider, and an associated exhibition, which were put together by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Gabriele Münter, among others, in 1911, and attempted to create a synthesis of art, not just painting, as it stood at the early part of the 20th century.

They had, in principle, lofty ideals, with what we might call nowadays their mission statement being: “The whole body of work we call art knows neither borders nor nations but only humanity.”

Of course it wasn’t quite like that in reality. Their humanity, as is so often the case, extended principally towards themselves and their kind, with little left over for those from other traditions, certainly outside of Europe. They had a colonialist’s comfort with appropriation, and this formed a strong thread in the exhibition.

It is to the credit of the curators that they lay these faults out equally with their triumphs, and let us, the viewer, see and comprehend the complexity of their attitudes and achievements, both positive and negative, and place them in context.
When I left the gallery, however, I was more puzzled than satisfied.

My friend had urged me to ‘see the gouaches of Charlotte Salomon’, and I could see a poster for her exhibition at the museum. But where were they? I searched high and low, but not no avail.

Not quite ready to give up, I wandered around aimlessly outside, disappointed not to have found it. I eventually decided to head back to my hotel.

But as I was crossing the road, I saw it: There, at the entrance to the metro station, was a sign for her exhibition, pointing down the stairs. Could it really be there, in that clattering metal and concrete mouth?

And yet there it was, through a glass door by the escalators and down the stairs, into a hushed, low lit netherworld.

I don’t think there is anything anyone could say that could prepare one for seeing the remarkable work of Charlotte Salomon, or for being inducted her remarkable world.

The exhibition focuses on Life? Or Theatre?, which is her life’s work. She called it a Singespiel (it might be called a musical in English) and it consists of 769 brilliantly executed gouache drawings, divided into three acts and accompanied by a narrative that, together, creates a fictionalised autobiography.

Her story is told with levity, and with references to the art, music, film, and philosophy of her time, all of which defies the often tragic events that unfold in the scenes.

I was looking for some way of describing the work that would make any sense, which is difficult unless you are standing in front of it, but the best description I have read so far comes from The Art Story:

“Perhaps one of the most underestimated artists in recent history, Charlotte Salomon secretly created a daunting visual opus while in exile during World War II. As a young German Jewish woman who witnessed the rise of the Nazis, Salomon used her artistic talent and vivid imagination to craft an expressive collection of imagery and text from an intensely personal story. Her work not only reveals an adept grasp of modernist aims and techniques, but also exposes the psychological workings of an artist desperately trying to maintain her individual identity at a time when her very existence was threatened by both internal and external forces.”

To me, it is one of the outstanding artworks of the 20th century. There is something so vital and powerful about it, which is all the more remarkable given her life, of course, was ultimately tragic, as were the lives of so many Jewish people at the time.

Her artistic creation transcends that tragedy, and that, I suppose, is the ultimate power of art.
I have almost finished Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I started a few weeks ago, and have been, appropriately enough, taking to bed with me every night.

Having read many of D.H. Lawrence’s previous works, I had high hopes for this highly significant novel, at least in terms of its place in the history of censorship. I have, however, been disappointed.

Lawrence seems uncomfortable with the overarching story, and with the people who inhabit it, and his prose seems leaden and awkward at times, as if he is out of his depth.

I understand why he took Connie to be his protagonist but it doesn’t really work, partly because he really doesn’t know her or understand her that well (leaving aside the question as to whether a man can adequately describe the sexual life of a woman from her perspective). Worse, she is not that sympathetic a character.

Neither is Mellors, who is sadly rather poorly sketched out. His remote sneering sometimes feels as if Lawrence didn’t really know what to have him say, and his attachment to his ideals would have been admirable if they had stood up to scrutiny, but they seem woolly and unstructured (leaving aside that he is meant to be not that articulate a character).

I am not going to judge the book too harshly for its clumsy prejudices and nasty assumptions, which would have landed a little more softly if the book had been written with a little more panache, as they are, sadly, of their time.

The sex scenes, however, are I suppose something that everyone is meant to talk about, but I really don’t know what to make of them. Some of Mellor’s comments about sex seem frankly bizarre, and writing those scenes from Connie’s perspective feels odd.

I think, overall, I keep making the comparison with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I read recently. It may not be very fair to link those two works together, but Lady Chatterley’s Lover does not come out favourably.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Life? Or Theatre? | Pushing the Wave