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Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?

Mar 31, 2011–Oct 16, 2011

Charlotte Salomon, a young Jewish artist from Berlin, worked feverishly between 1940 and 1942 to produce approximately 1300 paintings before she was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, transported to Auschwitz, and killed at the age of 26. The gouaches make up Life? or Theatre?—which through imagery and text tell the slightly fictionalized and theatrically imagined story of Salomon’s family.

The story presented in Life? or Theatre? is doubly tragic. It follows the mounting personal disasters of the self-destructive Salomons (and the artist's attempts to understand and escape them), while also bearing witness to the closing net of the Holocaust in which she was eventually caught. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is the first museum on the West Coast to host this exhibition. It features nearly 300 gouaches from Life? or Theatre? from the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

about the exhibition

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 it Life? 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 twenty-six-year-old was transported to Auschwitz and killed.

image gallery
THE story

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 eighteen-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 analyzations 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.


Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre? 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 2010­–11 exhibition season.

Image Credit

Charlotte Salomon, Gouache from Life? or Theatre? (detail), 1940-1942, Villefranche, France. Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. Copyright Charlotte Salomon Foundation.