Review: Griselda Pollock's O. E. Saunders Memorial Lecture

By Helen Cameron

On the evening of Tuesday 17th October the Buchanan lecture theatre was filled with students, taking time out of the stress of deadline week, hoping to catch a few words of art historical wisdom from a veritable legend in the field. The lecture was held in memory of Octavia Elfrida Saunders, a distinguished scholar of manuscript art and English illumination, who left £4000 to St Andrews for the purpose of furthering the teaching and studying of art history. The speaker this year was Griselda Pollock from the University of Leeds. Pollock has been extremely influential in theoretical discourse in the arts and academia, in particular with regards to gender studies. In discussing her career she referred to herself as ‘a mongrel, kind of hybrid’ due to the way her work has spanned so many different avenues of thought. Pollock discussed her upcoming book A Nameless Artist in the Theatre of Memory: Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) and the artist it discusses.

Charlotte Salomon,  Leben? oder Theater?  (Life? Or Theatre?, detail), 1940–42.

Charlotte Salomon, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?, detail), 1940–42.

Charlotte Salomon was a Berlin-born artist who created a unique work; a set of paintings called Leben? Oder Theatre?. Salomon created around one thousand gouache paintings in one year, later selecting the ones she would use for her final piece. Over three hundred and thirty were chosen and she layered many of them with tracing paper and inked quotations. Salomon’s aim was to create a work that merged the visual with the other senses and there was an accompanying soundscape to Leben? Oder Theatre?. Music from Orpheus and Eurydice and other pieces had themes surrounding melancholic or suicidal women. Pollock played several pieces and the music was profoundly affecting, adding to the immersive experience of Salomon’s work. Salomon grew up in a time when cinema was changing radically; the idea of the musical came into play, as did the change from black and white to colour, and from silent to sound. While in this period of exciting change, Salomon’s life was also paralleled by the horrors of the 1930s. She was not only a German Jewish woman; she was a German Jewish artist. Her studies began as the Third Reich took power and the psychological basis of her work was affected by the attack on her identity.

One piece that Pollock examined in detail during the lecture was a figural piece of a woman sitting by the beach in a relaxed pose reminiscent of the Copenhagen mermaid. On the bronzed woman’s back are the scrawled letters leben oder theatre. She kneels by the shore holding a transparent canvas. It is unclear whether the frame is empty or if she is depicting the seascape directly in front of her. This ambiguity is reflective of the work as a whole. The work is the end of the project and so in a way adds a cyclical meaning to the work - a woman faced with a blank canvas.

The predominant interpretation is that Salomon’s work is autobiographical, that the paintings discuss Salomon’s family, relationships and living spaces. Pollock disagrees with this narrative. She concluded by stating that she believes that Salomon was creating a formula of contemporary and historical sources/vignettes. Her work is a melancholy breakdown in which the setting is the everyday rather than a narrative made up of events.

Griselda Pollock explored the enigma of Charlotte Salomon and the mystery of her work, Leben? Oder Theatre? in a captivating lecture which was inspiring and reinvigorating in the mid-semester slump