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Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon: Life Or Theatre

Charlotte Salomon

8 November 2019 1 March 2020 / @jewishmuseumLDN

In the condition of terrorised vulnerability and politically menaced radicalised identity.Salomon contemplated taking her own life Instead, however, she created one of the most challenging, enigmatic and demanding artworks of the twentieth century. Griselda Pollock in: Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, published by Yale, 2018

The Jewish Museum London is pleased to present one of the most powerful artworks of the 20th century the complex masterpiece Life? or Theatre? by German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon .

This major exhibition features over 230 gouaches from her celebrated work, Life? or Theatre? created by Salomon in an extraordinary burst of creative activity in the early 1940s, when in hiding in the South of France. Fifty of the works to be shown at Jewish Museum London have never previously been exhibited in the UK the last major UK show of her work was at the Royal Academy of Arts, twenty years ago, after the work resurfaced in the early 1960s.

Shown in the exhibition at Jewish Museum London will be 236 gouaches reflecting the entirety of the work with accompanying text captions in form of wall graphics. There will also be a couple of short films and interactive media units, offering insight and understanding of the artwork in a combination of text, moving image, and audio.


A Private Memoir Pried Open

Life? Or Theater?

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LONDON The brutally short life of Charlotte Salomon? It was lived on the keenest of knife edges, from first to last. The surname itself, with its solemn biblical soundings, seems to toll like an ominously slow bell. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in the Weimar Republic in 1917, her mother Franziska committed suicide when she was 8, a fact that was kept from her daughter for years.

Mental instability was a blight upon the family that never went away. Other relatives had taken their own lives in the past, or would do so during her own lifetime. Her grandmother committed suicide shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Charlotte herself was to die by the hands of others. She perished in Auschwitz at the age of 26.

And in the years immediately before that death, her life was lived in conditions of the utmost precariousness, in occupied France, and it was there that she conceived the project of re-creating the story of her own family, painting her way through and perhaps beyond her own suicidal inclinations.

As she painted, what was at first dimly recalled began, little by little, to take on meaning, life, solidity. It is a work, she wrote in a note to what she had done, that became soul-penetrating.

Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?continues at the Jewish Museum London through March 1.

The Artistic Spirit That Could Not Be Silenced By The Nazis

Charlotte Salomons short life was characterised by persecution and family suicides and ended at Auschwitz. FLORENCE HALLETT reports on the remarkable artwork with which she chronicled her tragic existence.

In the winter months of 1941, the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon holed herself up in a hotel on the French Riviera, and worked. She worked as if her life depended on it, and to all intents and purposes, it did.

In hiding from the Nazis, and responsible still for the care of her grandfather, whose apparently predatory behaviour had led to the suicide of every female member of her family, the 24-year-old Charlotte had presented herself with a question: Whether to commit suicide, or to undertake something quite insanely extraordinary.

The something quite insanely extraordinary would be Leben? oder Theater? , a loosely autobiographical work comprising well over 700 painted sheets, accompanied by texts and directions for music.

Now, 236 sheets from the series are on display at the Jewish Museum London in the first major UK exhibition of the work for two decades, with 50 sheets in this country for the first time.

Though it remained unknown until the 1960s, today Life? or Theatre? is recognised as one of the outstanding works of 20th century art.

In 1971, Salomons father and stepmother donated it to the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdams museum of Jewish history , which a year later staged the first major exhibition of the series.

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The Obsessive Art And Great Confession Of Charlotte Salomon

In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, theGerman painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomonsgrandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in themid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of morphine, opium, and Veronal touse when their money ran out. But Salomons crime that morning was nota mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis this was entirelypersonal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not Herr Hitler, who,Salomon wrote, symbolized for me the people I had to resist. Andresist she did. She documented the event in real time, in athirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light.I knew where the poison was, Salomon wrote. It is acting as I write.Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me. Salomon also describes howshe drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her,from the Veronal omelette she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of adistinguished, wizened manhis head slumped inside the collar of hisbathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside hisvoluminous beardsurvives.

Defying The Nazis: The Jewish Masterwork Painted In Hiding

The First English Edition of this Book Visualises Life ...

16 March 2018

Charlotte Salomon was a German-Jewish artist who in the 1940s created a remarkable 769 paintings in under a year, whilst in hiding from the Nazis. At a time of widespread interest in her work, we present some of her paintings and the incredible story behind her secret masterpiece.

Charlotte Salomon’s magnum opus Leder? Oder Theater? is an incredible series of paintings, created during the Second World War. Yet her work focuses on familial abuse and tragedy over the horrors of the Holocaust.

Being a young Jewish woman, Salomon was forced to flee Nazi Germany in her early twenties, and was sent to live with her grandparents in the South of France. However, far from being a place of safety, there is evidence to suggest her grandfather was sexually abusing her.

After her grandmother committed suicide in 1939, her grandfather revealed that many other loved ones in Salomons life had committed suicide, including her mother, and this knowledge weighed down on her. She turned to painting to cope with her depression, driven by “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual”.

Following her release from Gurs concentration camp in France she worked relentlessly creating the hundreds of paintings that would become Life? Or Theatre?, under the knowledge that the Nazi hunting parties would destroy it all if discovered.

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In The Performing Arts

There have been several other exhibitions of parts of Life? or Theater?, and a number of films and plays made about Charlotte Salomon’s life, notably Company of Angels by the UK theatre company Horse and Bamboo Theatre which toured the UK, Netherlands and US and in 1981, Dutch director Frans Weisz released a feature film based on her life, entitled Charlotte, with the Austrian actress Birgit Doll playing the artist and Daberlohn played by Derek Jacobi. In 2011 he made a documentary revealing the contents of her last letter to Wolfsohn.

Saving Charlotte, a play by Judi Herman, was performed at the Bridewell Theatre in London in October/November 1998.

Lotte’s Journey, a play by Candida Cave, was performed at New End Theatre, Hampstead, in October/November 2007.

A novel, Charlotte, written by David Foenkinos, was published in 2014, which won the prestigious French literary prize Le prix Théophraste Renaudot, among other prizes.

An animated movie called Charlotte, based on Salomon’s life and paintings, is in production. It was initially set to be directed by Bibo Bergeron with a 10 million euro budget, but Bergeron left the film in October 2019. As of January 2020, Eric Warin, co-director of Ballerina, and Tahir Rana, director of Welcome to the Wayne, were working on the film in Canada.

Charlotte Salomon: Life Or Theatre At The Jewish Museum London

Born in 1917 to an affluent Berlin family, Charlotte Salomon trained in graphic arts as one of the few female Jews among the students of the academy in Berlin. In 1938 she fled Germany to join her grandparents in exile in France, and whilst hiding from the Nazis she completed the vast subject of this exhibition: Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music. She was later murdered in Auschwitz, aged 26 and 5 months pregnant.

Although It would be tempting to classify her work as Holocaust art, it would also be misleading. Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music is a series of over 700 gouaches accompanied by text, intended to be performed in lyrical theatre. 236 representative works are on display here. The work is structured in three parts: the prelude, the main part and the epilogue, narrating the story of Charlotte and her family from 1913 to 1940. The first scene is set in 1913 when her aunt throws herself in the lake at Schlaten.

Charlotte Salomon, or Charlotte Kann, as she names her character in Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music, was born in April 1917. Her mother, Franziska is initially ecstatic with baby Charlotte, yet soon after Franziska ceases to find pleasure in anything. She speaks only of death. She attempts suicide but Albert, her doctor husband, brings her back to life. Monitored by a nurse, Franziska is supposed to getting better, but death is constantly on her mind: at a time when no one is watching, she jumps out the window. Her death is immediate.

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Charlotte Salomon In Close

Until November 22, 2020, the Jewish Historical Museum will be transformed temporarily into a cinema from the 1920s and 30s. The exhibition Charlotte Salomon in close-up explores the influence of film on Charlotte Salomons gesamtkunstwerk Life? or Theatre? A Singspiel.

Charlotte Salomon was born into a Jewish family in Berlin, where she studied art. She created her multi-media masterpiece, which comprises hundreds of gouache drawings, in the South of France after fleeing Nazi Germany. She was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered soon after her arrival. Her parents found Life? or Theatre? in the South of France in 1947. It was later published and adapted for cinema and has since become world famous, delighting and moving generations of readers ever since.

Join us for a virtual tour of ‘Charlotte Salomon in close-up’. Curator Mirjam Knotter takes you through this extraordinary exhibition, which had to close two hours after opening because of the measures regarding the corona virus. Can’t wait to see it in real life? When the museum opens again, the exhibition will be on until the end of November in the Jewish Historical Museum!

Leven? of Theater?La Passion de Jeanne dArcLeven? of Theater?Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt

Salomons father, Dr Albert Salomon, and stepmother, the singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg gifted Life? or Theatre? A Singspiel to the Jewish Historical Museum in 1971.

Leven? of Theater? La Passion de Jeanne dArc

My Mother Killed Herself

Charlotte Salomon’s ‘Life? Or Theatre?

Charlotte is waiting for her mothers angelJewish Womens Archive

Her mother was not the first woman in the family to commit suicide. Previously, Charlottes grandmothers sister drowned herself in a pond. Then, Charlottes grandmother herself followed: she hanged herself. Charlotte remained the last one. Why do women kill themselves?, she asked in her unique book-play-series of gouaches.

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The Jewish Historical Museum Tour

Duration: 1,5 hour

The Jewish Historical Museum was established in 1932. Since 1987 the museum has been housed in a compex of four former Ashkenazic synagogues, built between 1671 and 1752. The museum owns a magnificent collection of special objects. Not only the beauty of the religious objects but also paintings and works of art are presented.

Different exhibitions show the history of the Jews in The Netherlands from 1600 to the present day, including the Jewish religion, the Childrens Museum and a special Print Room built to house the famous collector Leben or Theater by Charlotte Salomon.

During a tour of 1 ½ hours Jeanette Loeb will show you the highlights of this museum.

CostsPer hour 55 euro per family/group with a minumum of 1½ hour. You may bring up to 15 people. Excluded admission fees for Jewish Historical Museum.Special price of 110 euro for only 1 or 2 people for the first 2½ hours.

In Exhibitions And Art History

The paintings that make up Life? or Theater? began to be exhibited in the 1960s only, the first book with 80 reproductions was published in 1963, and drew comparisons with the story of Anne Frank. was shown the paintings and was impressed. In 1971 the collection was placed in the care of the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam. In 1981 the Museum presented 250 scenes in narrative sequence, and critics began to comment on the work. An exhibition at the London Royal Academy in 1998 was an unexpected sensation, helped by the publication of a complete catalogue. The work is still relatively little known, in part because Salomon’s work doesn’t appear on the international art market, as the whole archive belongs to the protective Charlotte Salomon Foundation based at the Joods Historisch Museum. The art historian Griselda Pollock dedicated to Charlotte Salomon a chapter in her Virtual Feminist Museum, analysing her work in terms of contemporary art, Jewish history and cultural theory.

Charlotte Salomon

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The Spaces Between The Images Are Also Important As Is The Case In Modern Comics

Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? . Viewed in the 21st century, Salomons artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images.

Together these sequential images tell a family history, focusing on a central character called Charlotte Kann, a semi-autobiographical version of Salomon herself. They document Charlottes development as an artist, her struggles against madness and her first love affair, all painted against a backdrop of increasingly violent Nazi rule. As a new exhibit of Salomons work opens at the Jewish Museum in London audiences have a rare opportunity to view this unique masterpiece.

Words and images

Many of the early paintings in the sequence are divided into tight grids and panels, their structure and arrangement highly reminiscent of comics. Tiny figures stride across the divided paintings cutting scenes and structuring the narratives flow.

At the heart of Life? or Theatre? is the question of whether to commit an act of self-destruction. In the early scenes, we are introduced to Charlottes parents, Albert and Franziska, through brief glimpses of their wedding night, the joyful announcement of Charlottes birth, and Franziskas rapid descent into depression.

The spaces between


Works By Charlotte Salmon

The First English Edition of this Book Visualises Life ...

The paintings of Life? Or Theater? and all studies for the work are owned by the Charlotte Salomon Foundation of Amsterdam and housed in the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. Paintings can be viewed on the museums web site:

Salomon, Charlotte. Charlotte: Life or Theater? An Autobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: 1981. The first full edition of the work published in English.

Salomon, Charlotte. Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?. London: 1998.

A smaller-format full edition, including essays, prepared for an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.

Salomon, Charlotte. Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures. New York: 1963. A first short edition of eighty reproductions.


Herzberg, Judith, and Franz Weisz. Charlotte. 1980. First feature film with actors, in English.

Dindo, Richard, and Esther Hoffenberg. Cest toute ma vie. 1992. Feature and documentary film, in French and English.

Fischer-Defoy, Christine, Daniela Schmidt, and Caroline Goldie. Paula Paulinka. 1995. Documentary film about Paula Salomon.

Felstiner, Mary. To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era. New York: 1994 Berkeley: 1997. Full-length biography with extensive illustrations and bibliography.

Fischer-Defoy, Christine. Charlotte SalomonLeben oder Theater? Berlin: 1986. Anthology of essays and interviews in German.

Ofer, Dalia, and Lenore Weitzman, editors. Women in the Holocaust. New Haven: 1998. Anthology of essays.

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With An Installation By Chantal Akerman

During a major life crisis the 23-year-old Charlotte Salomon paints the story of her life: Born in Berlin in 1917, she emigrated to her grandparents in the South of France in 1939. When her grandmother committed suicide, Charlotte Salomon learned that her mother had killed herself as well. To avert a nervous breakdown, she confronted her own story through painting. Within a few months she had created over 1,300 gouaches, using elements from films and comics, and adding pieces of music as accompaniment. Charlotte Salomon was arrested in 1943, deported via Drancy to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.

The touring exhibition shows 277 sheets from the series of pictures. In Berlin, the setting of “Life? or Theatre?”, the series is complemented by photographs and original documents from archives and private collections in Berlin and from Joods Historisch Museum .

“Life? or Theatre?” is supplemented by a contemporary work of art. The Belgian artist Chantal Akerman places the diary of her teenage grandmother, who was murdered in Auschwitz, at the center of her installation, “Walking Next to One’s Shoelaces Inside an Empty Fridge” .

For further information about the exhibition, please read Charlotte Salomon “Leben? oder Theater?” by Margret Kampmeyer, Museums-Journal, July 2007. We thank the Museums-Journal for granting permission to use this text.

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