In response to personal tragedies and a world darkening with the rise of Nazi persecution, a young German Jewish woman created a series of small paintings remarkable for their inventiveness and the intimate story they reveal. However, equally impressive is the fact that, unlike their creator, who perished at Auschwitz at age twenty-six, they survived. “Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music” is the title Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) gave to the approximately 780 paintings in which she fictionalized her own life to create a testament to survival and the power of memory. As she was about to be deported, Salomon bundled up the works and handed the package to a local physician with the poignant words, “Take good care of it, it is my whole life.” This exhibition included more than four hundred of these powerful paintings from the permanent collection of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.
Salomon grew up in Berlin, the daughter of a prominent surgeon and a mother who committed suicide, a fact that was hidden from Salomon until she was confronted with her grandmother’s attempt and ultimate success at selbstmort (self-murder) in 1940. In 1939 Salomon’s father and stepmother—the vibrant contralto Paula Lindberg, whom Salomon adored—had sent her to southern France to live with her grandparents for safety. While in exile to escape the increasing hostility toward Jews throughout Germany, Salomon was told by her grandfather of the family’s tragic history, which included at least six other suicides. In order to handle this overwhelming news, Salomon, living in virtual isolation, worked obsessively for just under two years to translate the extraordinary circumstances of her life. She was spurred on by recollecting the philosophy of her stepmother’s inspirational vocal teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, who believed genuine creativity resulted from pain and loss. The horror of the time in which Salomon lived, as well as the happy events of her life, particularly of her early childhood, are realized in her paintings through fictional characters who are closely aligned with actual family and friends.
Despite her conservative training at the Berlin Academy of Arts, Salomon employed an expressionistic painting style in “Life? or Theatre?” perhaps revealing her defiance of Nazi declarations that modern art is “degenerate.” With an increasing sense of urgency, her compositions evolve from several detailed narratives within a single composition to the simplicity and directness of the final page: a solitary figure facing the sea, with brush in hand. “Life? or Theatre?” is, indeed, an exceptional collection of images, which we were privileged to see in depth for the first time in Boston.