During World War II, while living in exile in France, the young German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) created Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music, comprising almost eight hundred small gouache paintings. In this work, Salomon combined painting with text and musical cues to tell a compelling and autobiographical coming-of-age story set amid increasing Nazi oppression and a family history of suicide. Although the artist died in Auschwitz — a fact that deeply affects our view of the work — Life? or Theatre? survived and stands as a testament to Salomon’s life and singular artistic vision.
Structured like a play, Life? or Theatre? is divided into a prelude, a main section, and an epilogue, which are further divided into scenes and sections. The prelude focuses on Charlotte’s youth in Weimar and Nazi Berlin; the main section on her artistic inspiration and lover, Amadeus Daberlohn; and the epilogue on her life in exile. The images, painted with only primary colors and white, range from expressionist portraiture to montages of time and space that combine multiple moments within the same page. Through-out Salomon’s work are echoes of modern artists such as George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Amedeo Modigliani — labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis — as well as direct references to Michelangelo and other old masters.
This exhibition of nearly four hundred paintings from Life? or Theatre? marks the first time such a large number of Salomon’s works have been on display at one time, offering a rare opportunity to see the depth of her amazing but little-known masterpiece.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Subtitled A Play With Music by its creator, Life? or Theatre? has a narrator and a cast of more than twenty characters closely based on their real-life counterparts. A comparison of these photographs with Salomon’s portraits reveals the acuity of her visual memory and her perceptive grasp of character.
The names in Life? or Theatre? are fictionalized and often resonate with significance. Charlotte Salomon, for example, becomes Charlotte Kann, which translates from the German as Charlotte “can” or “is able.” Her maternal grandparents, Ludwig and Marianne Grunwald, become Dr. and Mrs. Knarre, a jarring sound which also, in translation, suggests the verb “to fool,” reflecting Salomon’s difficult relationship with them. The charismatic Alfred Wolfsohn, Salomon’s artistic inspiration, is called Amadeus Daberlohn, invoking Amadeus Mozart, a revered figure in the Salomon household. “Daberlohn,” on the other hand, suggests “starveling,” a fair summary of Wolfsohn’s economic state when Salomon first met him, in 1937. Salomon’s stepmother, contralto Paula Lindberg, was the daughter of a rabbi. Her last name becomes Bimbam, a word from a song sung on the Jewish Sabbath. Doctor and musician Kurt Singer, the founder of the Cultural League of German Jews, becomes Dr. Singsong. And Siegfried Ochs, who did much to train Paula’s voice and promote her career, is renamed Professor Klingklang.