Art, Life, Madness: A Comparative Exploration of Frida Kahlo and Charlotte Salomon


Justy Engle

Frida Kahlo and Charlotte Salomon depict the female experience as it transcends visual art. Both use images overlaid with text in their self-writing to allow their inner emotional turmoil to escape, creating unconventional products that caused them to appear to the public as suffering from some sort of madness.[1] By looking at Kahlo’s diary, art and life and Salomon’s autobiographical opus Life or Theater? we can study the private lives of creative women in the early 1940s to observe the madness present in their works. This essay addresses how the women express their emotions through abstraction in images and texts to explain each artist’s ability to work through—and with—madness in order to create.

Frida Kahlo sought to present a mythic life as an organic part of Mexico; she sought to set herself apart as a figure breaking from the traditions of society just as the Mexican Revolution broke out. Kahlo presented her life with the same focus on the merging of fantasy and reality that is in her paintings. She was a vibrant twentieth century female artist from Mexico City whose work coincides temporally with the European Surrealists. She painted many self-portraits and surrealist images of birth and death. Much of her work centers on her identity as a woman and the physical ailment she addressed following the bus crash that resulted in her inability to bear children. In the home of her birth and death, there is a museum that records the events of her life as she wanted them depicted—not necessarily the way they were. She modified her date of birth from 1907 to 1910 to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Her diary records these incidents and others the way that she would have them be remembered for posterity, for the sake of her own mythic creation of self. She did marry painter Diego Rivera, but the museum claims they lived in the same house from 1929-1954; it does not make note of their separation, divorce and remarriage in the 1930s. She died at the age of forty-seven on July 13, 1954.[2]

Charlotte Salomon was born in 1917, a decade after Frida’s actual birth, and was one of the few Jewish students who attended the Berlin Art Academy in Nazi Germany. In her life’s work, Life or Theater?, a collection of gouache paintings overlaid with texts, Salomon struggles with whether to end her life or commence a wild adventure. She was trying to come to terms with the history of suicide that plagued her family. Choosing the latter, she created over a thousand paintings, between 1941 and 1943, in the shadow of the Third Reich. At the time, she was living in exile in Nice, France. As the Nazis intensified their search for Jews in southern France, she gave her life’s work to a trusted friend. In 1943 Salomon, several months pregnant, and her husband, Alexander Nagler, whom she married in September, were dragged from their house and deported by the Nazis to Birkenau where she died in the gas chamber soon after she arrived.[3]

Charlotte Salomon was acutely aware of the situation of her position as a Jew in Nazi Germany; in her work she does not focus on the group identity but rather her individual identity. She develops a tripartite identity in the body of her work as illustrated in her art and text. Salomon utilizes three different manners of address in her book, “I” and CS for the artist, “she” and Charlotte Kohn for the character, and Charlotte Salomon as the historic figure. In regard to Salomon’s types of appearances Danielle Knafo explains, “Her multiple levels of consciousness additionally reflect Salomon’s displacement and the in-between living to which she became accustomed.”[4] Knafo recognizes the importance of Salomon’s displacement as a Jew living in a Germany where Nazism was on the rise. The displacement Salomon experienced in having to navigate cultural, familial and political issues furthered the development of a multiplicity of consciousnesses that are apparent in Salomon’s artistic creation. The multivalent self that Salomon crafts is central to the creation of her creative work Life or Theater? and further adds to the notion of madness as necessary to create the work of over seven hundred gouache paintings in only eighteen months. As the artist creates, she delves deeper into her work so that she is able to push herself to create the work that burns her heart and soul. It is as if the creativity sparks an apparent madness to the outside world that does not recognize the spark in the way that the creator understands it.[5] Salomon used her autobiographical opus to work through the suicides of the members of her family and only reflected on the issues of the Nazis in a few scenes in her work.[6]

Frida Kahlo uses phrasing and images in her diary that do not always make complete literal sense in order to compose and maintain a public persona. Kahlo prefers to compose words in a stream-of-consciousness style that work together on a subliminal level. This style allows her to remove herself from the constraints of standard writing that is both socially and commercially acceptable. She pushes these boundaries and skirts the line of madness in her work. Kahlo begins her diary with a watercolor image that she claims she painted when she was nine; even in this private piece of writing she was working towards composing a persona, a public face that she could display and to which she could lay claim as if it were her own. The translation of her diary begins with, “no moon, sun, diamond, hands— / fingertip, dot, ray, gauze, sea. / pine green, pink glass, eye, / mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming.”[7] These words indicate that Kahlo is not concerned with the literal meaning of words, but the intellectual-emotional places to which her words can move the reader in the same manner that art moves the viewer. Kahlo intertwines thoughts and feelings that are not normally connected to communicate on a deeper level with her audience. Although she incorporated the man she loved, Diego Rivera, in much of her work, she did not lose her sense of identity or self by becoming enveloped by his larger than life persona. Kahlo presents the images of Diego in relation to her own identity and thus expresses to the audience the issues associated with broken bodies and broken hearts with sincerity. Kahlo explores their relationship visually in paintings such as Diego and Frida 1929-1944 and several self-portraits. Indeed, Kahlo’s work is imbued with a sincerity of a true artist rather than an untrained folk artist. Kahlo took text and image to create a world for the audience to experience her persona and her self-created identity, one that has only grown in legend and splendor since her death.

Frida Kahlo’s diary text encroaches upon the images much the same way that Salomon’s does in her autobiographical opus; Kahlo also occasionally does this in her larger paintings and in each instance reflects her inner emotional life. The most profound incident that informs Kahlo’s work is the bus crash that she experienced at age eighteen. The accident removed her clothes, and her bleeding body collected the gold dust another passenger of the bus had carried so that she was called “La bailarina,” the dancer.[8] Even in accidents and Kahlo’s life, the bizarre overcomes the reality of situations to present an indelible image of Kahlo that is worthy of remembrance. It is these sorts of images that Kahlo painted and by these images that Kahlo is remembered. It could be said that the accident invaded her unconscious and refused to be fully understood or brought to the surface for resolution. In her diary, Kahlo’s imagery of broken bones and pierced bodies, both hers and others, indicate to me that it is the accident that lies underneath and pushes Kahlo toward a sense of uncertainty in herself and even to the point of insanity as she is unable to grapple with the repercussions of the accident, including an inability to bear children.[9]

At the end of Kahlo’s diary in 1954, the year of her death, there is a six-page autobiographical section that suggests she was attempting an early form of creative non-fiction, or other hybrid autobiographical form as Salomon attempted several decades prior. In this section, Kahlo uses text for the six pages that transitions into images with text and suggests a larger style Kahlo might have adopted had she continued this autobiographical work.[10] Kahlo skips from 1914 to 1953 in less than a page and it is in this condensed time that the heart of Kahlo’s problem seems to lie.[11] It is not clear why she chose to skip those parts of her life for this section, or if she had intended to come back to them later, but by moving beyond these years Kahlo leaves large questions about her inner emotional turmoil during the pain at the end of her life in 1954. In Sarah Lowe’s analysis of Kahlo’s diary, she does not call attention to the importance of the autobiographical section as representative of Kahlo’s inner life and state in the time period in which she wrote it, but only explains its importance for biographers who are interested in Kahlo’s early life.[12] This section suggests that Kahlo wanted to deal with her life in a way that would be meaningful to others after her and wanted to express it in a conventional way—through writing—but in the end reverted back to the images with which she was so comfortable. Kahlo spoke best in images, and mainly used text when it helped to imbue images with meaning, such as within her paintings, or provide a deeper understanding of her emotional turmoil, such as within her diary. Lowe chooses to end the discussion of Kahlo’s work with her Time quote, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”[13] Kahlo painted her own reality, indicating that she painted that which she found to be worth remembering. Indeed, she fashioned her own outer life to cover the inner turmoil. It is also worth noting that Lowe ignored that Kahlo’s attempt to recount her life in a more standard autobiographical format was actually a way that Kahlo could have furthered her chosen persona and added depth to the character she became to the public. As beautiful and rich in textures as Kahlo’s images are, it appears to me that she never allows herself to fully embrace her own identity. In her work, she is always searching; the evidence for this is in the stylistic changes in her work throughout her career, and in her diaries where she allows herself to fall out of sanity briefly to connect with the kind of creativity she needs to attempt to discern meaning from her own thoughts and the images and text floating inside her head.

Salomon, in her autobiographical work, embraces the use of images and text in a way that Kahlo does not. In order to produce the images and text coalescing in her head, Salomon uses only three colors in creating her gouache paintings. She also uses a combination of text in two languages, text that encroaches the images before overtaking them as her opus progresses to reflect her inner emotional state rather than simply her family and personal history. At the end of her work, it is evident that she senses her time is drawing to a close and she must push through to ensure she says all that she needs to say by the completion of the work. Knafo suggests that “the art object [Life or Theater?] attempts to restore these broken connections and to impose form onto the destruction if only by representing it within a new structure.”[14] By allowing full pages of text to function as pieces of art for the end of the work, Salomon allows the images to carry the same weight as her text. Salomon does not preference one type of communication over the other; she equates them in her work. It is this equation that allows Salomon to progress to the point of desiring life while it is unclear, and even doubtful, whether Kahlo ever achieved this state. For Salomon, the object is important, and it connects the intellectual, emotional and spiritual dots to allow the story to live on because it is told through a variety of formats, even calling on the audience’s knowledge of music throughout the book to provide a soundtrack for the work. This kind of work is so forward thinking that it can be thought of as nothing besides insane in its day and it certainly calls out the kind of beautiful creative madness that possessed Salomon and flowed through her as simply another facet of her intellectual prowess. Although young, Salomon was able to achieve an intellectual and artistic enlightenment through her non-preferential equation of texts and images that few ever reach.

It is fascinating, then, that both artists use the technique of combining image and text in order to produce works that attempt to express the inexplicable and inexpressible. While Kahlo articulates the image most clearly in painting, and these works have seen much more fame and have been more marketable, Salomon’s unwillingness to privilege images over words removes her work from the critical discourse simply because it is difficult to discuss. Salomon rejected the idea of labels and sought equality for all in her work and these are among the reasons that her work has been so often forgotten or neglected even in regard to Holocaust studies. Salomon did not speak as directly about the Holocaust as Art Spiegelman, but that does not mean her work has any less value than Maus. It is no surprise, then, that the lack of discussion of the greater political unrest in contemporary Germany ensured that Salomon would remain a shrouded figure for a generation beyond her death. As Salomon’s work encounters more critical analysis, she will achieve greater intellectual and academic prominence in future discourse on women’s autobiographical texts. Salomon’s visual and textual representations of the Holocaust are valuable as they attempt to express the inexplicable and inexpressible horrors that occurred, including Salomon’s depiction of Nazis en masse.[15] In Salomon’s work, she attempts to also express the inexplicable and inexpressible in regard to the workings of the human mind. To do so she looks at the microcosm of her work and attempts to understand how it functions as a way to save her own mind in relation to the minds of the members of her family who committed suicide. Salomon uses their faces and the dialogue she remembers or imagines for them in order to express those things she cannot simply state. She uses the expressive nature of the face to further the emotional turmoil in the soul of the person the face represents.

Faces and positions of figures in the self-writings and self-drawings of each are representative of the inner struggles of the artists by extension of the characters each draws; these often showcase the struggles to overcome inner madness in order to create. This is present in Kahlo’s work as previously mentioned with her textual representation, but certainly also in her visual representations. Kahlo’s diary includes a poignant representation of herself with the words in Spanish above her image that translate, “I am DISINTEGRATION…”[16] It is this image of a red Kahlo impaled atop a green column losing a head, hand, foot with a disembodied eye beside the loose pieces that indicates that she felt she was losing herself. Her exterior disintegrates and suggests the disintegration of her inner self as well. This image hearkens back to the bus crash that changed the course of her life. It was after this surreal and bizarre crash in which she found herself indeed so broken and wounded that she focused on her painting. The disintegrating column is also suggestive of the handrail that pierced her abdomen and exited her body through her vagina during the crash. It was this accident that left her unable to bear children to full term although she experienced several miscarriages. Her abdomen in this image is blackened, suggesting Kahlo’s discouragement and disappointment with her withered body. Kahlo labels herself disintegration because she has difficulty coming to terms with herself as a person and the inadequacy she feels as a woman. In these beautifully tragic images, Kahlo provides insight into her mind and the way that she functioned as a result of the accident. The figures in her diary shy away from reality and towards her own version of it with unusual lines and shapes that do not necessarily correspond with the way that the human body can actually move.

Salomon presents figures including herself in a variety of poses and positions, often overlapping the text and each other. Following the depiction of the suicide of her mother, she presents herself in a series of seventeen images on one page rising from bed throughout the night to look for letters on the windowsill from her mother or “any angelic trace” that would indicate her mother’s presence.[17] Salomon was led to believe her mother had died from influenza and it was over a decade after her death that she discovered the truth from her grandfather after the attempted suicide of her grandmother. It is this discovery, and the later suicide of her grandmother, that propelled Salomon to pursue her autobiographical work with such fervor. Salomon allows the figures in her work to appear as unrealistic or realistic as the situation dictates in order to further the emotional understanding of the piece. Salomon is wedded to reality only in that she uses it as a tool to present the truth and the kernels of meaning behind the pictorial and textual representations.

Meaning within the works of each transcends their individual experiences to suggest a broader mental and emotional struggle with madness in the mind of the artist. It is within the artistic mindset that these women functioned above all else; it was within the creative outlet that these women allowed themselves to be free even when society and nature did not allow them to become who they wanted to be. Under the Nazi influence, Salomon was forced to conceal her Jewish heritage or suffer. Biographer Mary Lowenthal Felstiner calls attention to the scenes that Salomon painted that referenced Nazis in Life or Theater? and explains that in each of Salomon’s depiction of the swastika, it is represented backwards, an “inversion meant to defy that manly symmetry.”[18] In this representation, Salomon is able to depict her desire to subvert the propaganda of the Nazis she experienced and instead invert their deadly ideology. Salomon does not wrestle as much with the problems in Germany at that time, although she does depict images without understanding the outcome of the events, according to Felstiner. Salomon wrestles most with the issues of her family and the suicide epidemic within it—it is the seven suicides on her mother’s side alone that so concern her—to the point that she must choose to live life or simply a version of it, life instead as theatre.

Salomon chooses to display her identity on the pages of her book. She leaves this bit of identity from which later audiences might glean her spiritual and intellectual torment as she composes images and text that express the gravity of her mother’s death and the secrecy of the deaths of the other family suicides. Salomon embarks upon a life that, while short, was spent in the open with ferocity in expressive identity. Salomon understood, as Austin explains, “as much as signification distances us from the real, offering the compensation of signification for a world that is lost to us, it also returns that world to us in the very shapes and sounds of signification.”[19] Salomon did not need to use carbon copies of life to present the reality of her life; she was able to present her life by channeling her innermost thoughts and desires and placing them on the page. Salomon did this in such a brief amount of time that she must have been painting obsessively, at least several images daily, in order to produce the breadth of work that she produced in the eighteen months she took to compose Life or Theater? It is quite obvious at the end that she felt her time running out as the images are completely overtaken and replaced with text. It is in this section that she confesses, speaking about her character Charlotte, “And she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric.”[20] Salomon, who is equated with the character in her work in later critical discourse, admits thus that the events told in her autobiographical opus made her consider whether suicide was an option for her or if she needed to overcome the madness that had overtaken so many in her family before. And so her text overtakes her images and she purges the thought of ending her life by using the sacrifices before her “in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”[21] Salomon understands that she cannot separate herself from the depths of the past completely, or the darkness that so overshadowed those who had killed themselves. She had to make the positive choice to create from the darkness, and this is not necessarily the sane choice. Salomon, dealing with a family history of depression, was able to overcome that with her creative inclinations. It is a fascinating switch that Salomon made: to create instead of destroy, that suggests that this is why madness in some form still exists in the minds of individuals and has not been expunged from human consciousness. In order to achieve the kind of creativity that fills artists like Salomon with purpose and identity, a bit of madness has to first exist so that these artists can amble towards the other extreme of creativity to escape the madness. Salomon solidified her identity in her creative autobiography and confronted her demons directly in ways that her other family members did not consider as options.

Kahlo, on the other hand, presents an identity to the public that is not necessarily her truest self but a self that she created. Kahlo becomes an artist, then, in her own self-creation. It is this kind of world building and persona building that most visibly separates the two. While both came from German Jewish roots, it is Kahlo who incorporated her Indian and Spanish heritages and set these against each other in a very literal way in The Two Fridas. Kahlo struggles with identity, certainly, but in the end does not rely as heavily on the real as does Salomon. Even in her cremation, the surreal overtook the reality of the ceremony as those present recall the body rising up after pushed into the fire with the coffin open and with her hair surrounding her face; Sisqueiros claimed that “when the flames ignited her hair, her face appeared as if smiling in the center of a large sunflower.”[22] It is this bizarre, surrealist imagery that stands as the only remembered reality for the last moments her broken body existed in that particular physical form. Her brokenness was reduced to ash after her spirit was freed from its broken home; a fittingly poetic ending for such an artist.

The lives of both artists ended in a tragically poetic manner. While Kahlo lived much longer than Salomon, the suspicion of suicide surrounded her death although no autopsy was performed and the official cause is listed as a “pulmonary embolism.”[23] Kahlo was only 47, Salomon, only 26. Salomon’s death at Auschwitz while five months pregnant—literally brimming with life—parallels Kahlo’s in its tragedy. Kahlo’s final resting place is a pre-Columbian urn, a headless female figure that appears to be pregnant with Kahlo’s ashes, a fitting final tribute to the artist. Kahlo constantly struggled with the inability to produce a child, to achieve that state of femininity she so desired. Kahlo depicts miscarriage in many of her paintings, often through the inclusion of scissors or other castration images as well as a considerable amount of blood. Neither woman ever produced an heir, a person to nurture and teach, to watch grow and move forward beyond the constraints of the lives of their mothers. Salomon and Kahlo were both reduced to ash following their deaths, Kahlo through planned cremation, and Salomon most likely in one of the miserable ovens at the concentration camp.

Untimely death and an inability to achieve that which one desires in life is always tragic, but it is even more pronounced with these figures because of the artistic statements they made. These women were products of the decisions of people around them, but they did not let these choices prevent them from creating. These choices, rather, allowed them to internalize and create in order to express how they felt about the actions around them. They both developed multiple consciousnesses so that they might produce work both inside and outside of themselves simultaneously. It was a way of dealing with the trauma within their lives, and while this often made them seem mad to the outside world, it is their creativity that stands as a testament to the ability of the human soul to create and to achieve a sense of completion even in the absence of the human life that created it.

Kahlo and Salomon are exemplary female artists whose work anticipates such female autobiographical graphic novelizations as Persepolis. In many ways, they paved the way for the new wave of feminism that would strike years after their respective deaths, as well as the avant-garde and post-modern movements. The ways in which these women presented their thoughts and feelings in their art suggests rich inner lives as well as the ability to connect disparate ideas in their consciousness and their identities. Kahlo and Salomon used art to create their own identities in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Kahlo chose to begin her life with the Mexican Revolution, even though she was born three years before it began; Salomon chose to begin it with the suicide of another Charlotte, the one for whom she was named, that occurred several years before she was actually born. By choosing the beginning of their lives for their public persona, they were able to rewrite their life histories. The ability to rewrite history, to present an image to the public to be remembered, to change details in order to imbue a particular meaning to life: all of these points serve to further the progressive thinking of these talented female artists. Certainly, Kahlo took more advantage of this than Salomon, but Salomon did place a thin veil between reality and her autobiographical opus by making minor changes to names.

Salomon’s work, in particular, is difficult to truly place as it existed before creative non-fiction and combines image and text in a way unheard of before the creation of the first graphic novel. According to Goldstein, “she fits into no recognized artistic category didn’t join, and posthumously doesn’t belong to, any school or category.”[24] This places Salomon’s work in a difficult place for response from a particular audience and suggests the outsider quality of Salomon. She, like Kahlo, moved in a different circle than those around her. Kahlo’s work is often characterized as folk art because of a lack of critical training, but it carries so much more weight and her images suggest an understanding of life that moves beyond the abilities of a folk artist. Kahlo and Salomon, in their lifetimes, moved beyond their peers in the creative world through introspection and creation. They moved beyond the confines set by the societies in which they lived in order to create what felt right for them to create and express the thoughts and feelings they had no other avenue to express. It is often when one has moved beyond the confines of the time period in which one creates that one is seen as mad, so it is not surprising that Kahlo and Salomon appear eclectic, at best, and crazy, at worst, to the critics who are unwilling to ascribe the notoriety to these two artists that they deserve.

[1] The idea of madness and its relation to genius has a long-standing history that extends far beyond the medieval period. For a further understanding of the genesis of this particular idea and in order to understand more fully why it is used thus, see the works of Marsilio Ficino, a fifteenth century physician, philosopher and humanist.

[2] Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 3-4, 438.

[3] Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), ix, 237.

[4] Danielle Knafo, In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art (Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009), 61. Knafo explores female artists, including Kathe Kollwitz, Adrian Piper, and Orlan as well as Salomon and Kahlo.

[5] For a modern take on the creative impulse in regard to mental illness, see Marya Hornbacher’s Madness, an autobiographical account of her bipolar life and creative impulses

[6] It is likely that Salomon’s work has not been better known because, even though she is a Jew creating in Nazi Germany, she did not focus her attention on the Nazis or the Holocaust that was taking place around her. Since her work is so focused on the familial and subsequent internal struggle with depression and suicide, her work has often been marginalized and is not often written about.

[7] Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995), 203.

[8] Herrera, Frida, 49.

[9] See Ibid., 42, 48, 65 and 134.

[10] Ibid., 156.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Sarah M. Lowe, Frida Kahlo (New York: Universe, 1991), 281.

[13] Ibid., 287.

[14] Knafo, In Her Own Image, 69.

[15] Charlotte Salomon, Charlotte, Life or Theater?:An Autobiographical Play (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 152.

[16] Kahlo, Diary of Frida Kahlo, 41.

[17] Salomon, Charlotte, Life or Theater? 39.

[18] Felstiner, To Paint Her Life, 30.

[19] Carolyn F. Austin, “The Endurance of Ash: Melancholia and the Persistence of the Material in Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater?” Biography  31, no. 1 (2008): 103-32. 104.

[20] Salomon, Charlotte, Life or Theater? 777.

[21] Salomon, Charlotte, Life or Theater? 782.

[22] Herrera, Frida, 438.

[23] Herrera, Frida, 431.

[24] Judith S. Goldstein, “Alone with Charlotte Salomon,” Partisan Review 69 (2002): 75-76.

Justy Engle is assistant professor of English, Campbellsville University. She has completed a doctorate at the University of Louisville. The title of her dissertation is “To Write a Life: Three Women in History”. Her areas of academic interests are women’s spiritual autobiographies and medieval literature, fourteenth through the fifteenth centuries.

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