Artist Charlotte Salomon was born into a middle-class German Jewish family in 1917; she was killed at Auschwitz in 1943. Salomon produced “Life? or Theater?” (1940–42), a lightly fictionalized autobiography told through a series of vivid gouache paintings, while living under false papers in southern France. Shortly before she was arrested and deported, she entrusted the entire cycle to a friend. Her instructions: “Keep this safe. It is my whole life.”
The three-part work is structured like a play or a film, with each section laid out scene by scene in storyboard fashion. It consists of a prologue describing Salomon’s family, her Berlin upbringing, and the suicides of her mother and aunt; a main act telling the story of her passion for the musician Alfred Wolfsohn; and an epilogue recounting her life in exile.
Of Salomon’s original 1,325 paintings, 278 were presented here. The earliest images are minutely detailed, like the view of Salomon’s parents’ first apartment, but by the cycle’s end, Salomon’s painting has become almost frenetic. One painting may contain many scenes, as in a comic-strip-like depiction of the music teacher Amadeus Daberlohn (Wolfsohn) lost in thought; another will zoom in so close that we can’t miss the double chin of the otherwise irresistible Paulinka Bimbam, a stand-in for Charlotte’s stepmother, the mezzo-soprano Paula Salomon-Lindberg.
These are images informed by cinematic and photographic ways of seeing. But in contrast to, say, Leni Riefenstahl’s antiseptic Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934), Salomon’s account of her family’s complex history, of her conflicted relationships with Wolfsohn and Salomon-Lindberg, and of Germany’s descent into fascism presents an emotional anamorphosis, created in extremis and reconstituted differently by every viewer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 94.