Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?


Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?
March 31 – July 31, 2011

San Francisco, CA, January 13, 2011
 – In the early years of World War II, Charlotte Salomon, a 23-year-old Jewish artist from Berlin, fled to the south of France where she shut herself into a hotel room and spent two years feverishly painting the history of her life. She called itLife? or Theatre?: A Play With Music, an astounding body of over 1300 powerfully drawn and expressively colored gouache paintings conceived as a sort of autobiographical operetta on paper. On one numbered page after another, Salomon used an inventive mixture of images, dialogue, commentary and musical cues to tell a compelling coming-of-age story set amidst family suicides and increasing Nazi oppression. This singular creation would be Salomon’s only major work. Just one year after she completed Life? or Theatre?, the pregnant 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz and killed.

This spring, the Contemporary Jewish Museum will be the only museum on the West Coast to show this new installation of Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, an exhibition featuring nearly 300 of Salomon’s gouaches from the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition highlights the main acts of Salomon’s sweeping narrative, allowing visitors to appreciate not just the individual strength of each piece but also its serial nature.

Life? or Theatre? is an extraordinary work of art that deserves and needs to be seen,” says Connie Wolf, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “Anyone with an interest in the creative spirit will be moved and awed by Salomon’s compelling magnum opus. This lifetime of work, created in such a short space of time with no promise or even hope of recognition, speaks so deeply to how essential an act of art making can be. We are so thrilled to be able to bring this to a wider audience.”


Salomon structured Life? or Theatre? as a play with a prologue, a main part, and a finale. The prologue focuses on her childhood and adolescence in Weimar and Nazi Berlin; the main section on a man who would be Salomon’s greatest artistic inspiration and first love; and the epilogue on her life in exile.

The story was certainly her story, and she recollects it in detail, but as her own title suggests, Salomon fictionalized elements. Certain inventions are immediately apparent -- she gave stage names to the family and friends that became her cast of characters including her own stand in, Charlotte Kann – but the extent to which the narrative of Life? or Theatre? embellishes or strays from the truth remains, in some respects, unknown.

When the curtain goes up in 1913, an 18-year-old girl commits suicide. This is the aunt that Charlotte will be named after when she is born four years later, and it is the first of many suicides amongst the women in the family, a key leitmotiv in the work. Charlotte is raised in an assimilated Jewish upper-class household by her loving parents, Albert and Franziska, and enjoys a happy childhood. When she is 8 years old, however, her mother dies from what Charlotte is told was influenza, but in fact, was a leap from a window.

Her father remarries a celebrated and charismatic singer, Paula Lindberg, who Charlotte adores. Salomon makes her one of the central characters of Life? or Theatre?, giving her the name Paulinka Bimbam (Lindberg’s father was a rabbi and ‘bimbam’ refers to a word from a song sung on the Jewish Sabbath). As the prologue continues, the family is increasingly excluded from public life due to anti-Semitic policies instituted after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Her father loses his job, her stepmother is barred from making public appearances and Charlotte’s worldly grandparents emigrate to the south of France. Charlotte leaves school and takes up private drawing lessons. A year later, she remarkably enters Berlin’s Art Academy, admitted as part of a small quota of Jews. She was considered an unremarkable student.

Enter Amadeus Daberlohn (whose real name was Alfred Wolfsohn), an unemployed voice teacher shellshocked from the First World War. With his extravagant theories about the connection between the soul and creativity, he would become one of the central characters of Life? or Theatre?, capturing young Charlotte’s heart. Amadeus, however, is smitten with Charlotte’s alluring stepmother, and only eventually turns his attention to Charlotte, primarily as the subject of his theoretical investigations. Salomon, acknowledging the foolishness of the situation, reserves some of her funniest and most astute character analyzes for the beloved, but somewhat pompous Amadeus. Whether or not this great, but unrequited love was more fact or more fiction, the text strongly suggests that it was this man’s encouragements that fired Salomon’s artistic ambitions and sustained her to the end of her life.

As the story continues, Charlotte’s father is briefly sent to a concentration camp (her stepmother miraculously obtains his release). Germany is deemed too dangerous, and Charlotte is sent to her grandparents in the south of France.

The epilogue begins as France declares war on Germany and Charlotte’s grandmother takes her own life out of despair at the growing threat. It is at this time that Charlotte learns about the real nature of her mother’s suicide and the history of suicide in her family. When the south of France is cleared of foreign immigrants, she and her grandfather are briefly interned in a camp, but are released due to her grandfather’s age.

Charlotte is on the brink of a nervous break down and is confronted with the choice of either committing suicide or “doing something especially crazy," as Salomon writes on one of the last sheets of the work. Charlotte recalls Amadeus’ words, "first fathom yourself in order to reinvent yourself," and begins working on Life? or Theatre?. Salomon writes, “And, with dream-awakened eyes, she saw all the beauty around her, saw the ocean, felt the sun, and knew: she must disappear for a time from the human surface, and sacrifice everything for this – to recreate herself from the depths of her world.”

Life? or Theatre? stops here where it begins. Acquaintances reported that Salomon was so possessed during its creation that she only rarely stopped to eat, drink and sleep. When she was finished, she handed all of the pages to a friend, saying, “Take good care of it. It is my life.”

Salomon survived for one year beyond the completion of Life? or Theatre? – a year that became increasingly dangerous after the Italians occupied Southern France and began to deport Jews to camps in Germany. Her grandfather passed away and Salomon, sheltering in a villa owned by an American woman, married the villa’s sole remaining resident, an Austrian refugee named Alexander Nagler. The marriage doomed the couple – it was Nagler’s attempt to get a marriage license at the local police station that gave them away as Jews. Salomon was pregnant when both she and her husband were picked up by the Gestapo. Salomon was killed immediately on arrival at Auschwitz; Nagler murdered a few months later.


Visitors to Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? will be struck by the range and vivacity of Salomon’s color palette. In fact, on the third page of Life? or Theatre?, Salomon refers to the work as a ‘tri-colored play with music.’  But researchers who have investigated the gouaches have determined that Salomon only used three pigments to make the entire work – red, blue and yellow (some white was used to mix colors).

While no one is sure why she constrained herself in this way, it is clear that Salomon uses color to draw distinctions between acts and moods. In the Prelude, names are painted in blue; in the main section, red; and in the epilogue, yellow. Throughout, the color palette reflects the emotional landscape. Recollections of a happy holiday in the Bavarian Alps are drawn in bright yellows and greens. Her mother’s death is rendered in much gloomier hues.


Salomon conceived of Life? or Theatre? as a singspiel, an 18th-century German predecessor of the operetta that alternated between spoken dialogue and musical numbers. Salomon’s actors often speak in rhyme, and the text of their lyrical dialogue is as an integral part of each painting’s composition.

Initially, Salomon kept all of the text on separate sheets, mostly of tracing paper the same size as the paintings, using both paint and pencil to write. Later however, only such things as chapter headings are separated, and the dialogue merges with the images on the same sheets. Salomon would convey more impassioned tones by intensifying the color of the painted words.

In the exhibition, English translations of the text in individual paintings will appear on wall labels.


Salomon reportedly hummed constantly while she worked, and it is this internal soundtrack, a medley of classical music, folk songs and popular music for the movies, that became musical cues jotted down throughout the work to accompany certain scenes.  In a comic gesture, the somewhat ridiculous, bespectacled Amadeus enters accompanied by the toreador’s song from “Carmen” while a simple little folk melody, ‘We twine for thee the maiden’s wreath,’ is used more ominously. The song is first noted at the festive occasion of her father and mother’s wedding, but echoes painfully and ironically when her grandmother looks out of the window at the crumpled figure of Charlotte’s mother below. The tune pursues the distraught Charlotte down the hall and into the bathroom where she shuts herself in to come to terms with her mother’s death.

Salomon explains the musical aspect of her ‘play with music’ on the first pages of Life? or Theatre?, writing, “The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. He is painting. A tune suddenly enters his mind. As he starts to hum it, he notices that the tune exactly matches what he is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in his head, and he starts to sing the tune, with his own words, over and over again, in a loud voice until the painting seems complete.”


Salomon’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total art work’ has as much in common with the theater as it does with cinema. The work at times resembles a storyboard for a film. Often one page contains a whole story with multiple scenes fitted next to each other or layered vertically down the page. Salomon’s style is also full of long shots, close-ups, flash backs and montage.

What is also striking stylistically and compositionally is the difference between the beginning and end of the work. Early pages are rendered in rich detail and figures are painted with portrait-like clarity. In later pages, a minimum of detail is used and a hurried, expressionistic style takes over. Figures are stylized, much less representational and only suggest who the character may be. The very last pages contain only dense blocks of text. This stylistic shift could be attributed to Salomon’s growing desperation to finish the work in light of the increasingly dangerous situation she found herself in. However, Salomon suggests in her introduction to Life? or Theatre? that the changing quality of the work has to do with the characters themselves. She writes, “…The author has tried – as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section, to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.”

And indeed it has. Well-known American author Jonathan Safran Foer, who participated in the curation of a 2010 show of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam, wrote the following in a special publication about the artist and her work, “Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? didn’t strike me like lightening, but drenched me like a slowly building rainstorm. …no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theatre? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for.”



The Life and Afterlife of Charlotte Salomon
Sunday, April 17 · 2–4 PM
Free with regular Museum admission.

Charlotte Salomon, considered among the most innovative artists of mid-century Europe, had a tragic life and a fascinating afterlife.  Join professor and author Mary Felstiner, author of the definitive biography To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era; Yehudit Shendar, Art Curator of the Museums Division at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem; and poet Anne Barrows (Our Charlotte) as they discuss the influence of a writer/painter whose work defies categorization, and continues to influence writers and painters in unusual ways.

The Hidden Artist
Sunday, June 12 · 2 - 4 PM

Filmmaker Frans Weisz, whose feature film “Charlotte” (1981) was among the earliest public explorations of the life and work of Charlotte Salomon, will discuss his forthcoming documentary on the artist, as well as show never-before-seen clips and photos from her life.


Holocaust Remembrance Day
Sunday, May 1 · Free Day
Gallery Hours · 11 – 5 PM | Commemoration Service · 4 – 6 PM.

The CJM is honored to host the community commemoration for Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah), with a series of ceremonies, readings, music, and art-making. Admission is free.

Partners: The Jewish Family and Childrens’ Services Holocaust Center; Jewish Community Relations Council; and Lehrhaus Judaica.

Admission to the CJM is Free.

The following programs are a part of Holocaust Remembrance Day:

Public Tours
11 AM, 12 PM, 1 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM for teens, and 4 PM

Hourly public tours of Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?. To join a tour, check in at the Shenson Visitors Center. The 3 PM tour will be specifically geared for a teen audience. Please note that tours have a limited capacity.

Film Screening
Collaboration with the Past
11:15 AM – 1:45 PM

Artist Rita Blitt presents the world premiere of her meditative, multi-media work, Collaboration with the Past, featuring music by composer Pavel Haas, who died at Auschwitz. The nine-minute film will screen continuously at the CJM during Holocaust Remembrance Day, and echoes the musically-inspired paintings of Charlotte Salomon, whose Life? or Theatre? is currently on view.

Conversation with Artist Rita Blitt
2 – 3 PM

Artist Rita Blitt (Collaboration with the Past), along with longtime California Symphony Music Director Barry Jekowsky, will discuss the role of music in nourishing community, as well as the complexities of connecting music to painting and other forms.

Drop-In Art-Making:  Poetry and Collage
1 – 3 PM 

Create tissue-paper collages inspired by the poems written by children living at Terezin concentration camp during World War II.

Art Buffs: Expression as Existence | Collaboration with Spokes of Youth Speaks 
Open to the Teen Public
3 – 5 PM  

Youth leaders from the CJM and Youth Speaks co-facilitate this teen workshop on painter Charlotte Salomon, who, before being sent to Auschwitz at age 26, created a story of her family’s history through images and words.

3 – 3:15 PM: Intros

3:15 – 4 PM: Tour with TACs

4 – 4:45 PM: Workshop with Spokes

4:45 –5 PM: Closing

Community Commemoration Service
4 – 6 PM

Organized by the Jewish Family and Children Services Holocaust Center


Drop-In Art-Making
Free with regular Museum admission. Youth 18 and under always free.

Colors and Moods
Sunday, June 12 and 26, 2011 · 1 – 3 PM

Utilizing the same palette that formed the visual landscape of Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre?, combine red, blue, and yellow gouache colors to create a painting that conveys moods.

Story Boards
Sunday, July 24 and 31, 2011 · 1 – 3 PM

Using inspiration from the Charlotte Salomon exhibition, create your own stories by arranging selections of characters into storyboard compositions.

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?

This touring exhibition was organized by the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam, and was specially created by Dr. Sabine Schulze, director at the Hamburger Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, and Edward van Voolen, curator of the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam. All works in the exhibition are from the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam. Copyright holder is the Charlotte Salomon Foundation. The San Francisco presentation has been made possible by the generous and visionary support of Dorothy R. Saxe; Lydia and Doug Shorenstein; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation; Jim Joseph Foundation; Phyllis Moldaw; Jewish Community Endowment Holocaust Memorial/Education Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; and the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany - San Francisco. This project is also supported by several other individuals and public funds from the Netherlands Cultural Services. The exhibition publication has been made possible by the thoughtful support of the Brill Family Foundation, Karen and Michael Zeff, and Luba Troyanovsky. The Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead supporters of the 2010 / 2011 exhibition season.

About the Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The new facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the 21st century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations, who are the lead supporters of the 2010/11 exhibition season. Additional major support is provided by the Jim Joseph Foundation; The Wallace Foundation; Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropic Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Bank of America; Institute of Museum and Library Services; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; The Hearst Foundations; Terra Foundation for American Art; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Osterweis Capital Management; The Skirball Foundation; Target; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; and Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund. The Museum also receives major support from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

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General Information

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