Jewish Historical Museum shows Charlotte Salomon’s work Life? or Theatre? in its entirety for the first time

The Jewish Historical Museum is celebrating the centenary of the birth of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) with the exhibition Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, which opens on 20 October 2017. The exhibition presents her extraordinary artistic legacy – the artwork Life? or Theatre? – comprising almost 800 gouaches in its entirety for the first time.

Charlotte Salomon made her famous ‘singspiel’ – an artwork consisting of hundreds of paintings with transparent text overlays – in the South of France, where she lived for several years as a Jewish refugee during the Second World War. In 1947, the artwork was discovered there by her parents, who donated it to the Jewish Historical Museum in 1971. Parts of Life? or Theatre? have been shown in museums around the world for decades, eliciting intense reactions from the public and inspiring artists, filmmakers, writers and choreographers to create new works. 

Salomon studied at art school in her native Berlin until the end of 1938, when, at the age of twenty-one, she fled Nazi persecution and went to live in the South of France with her grandparents, who had fled there earlier. A personal tragedy unfolded shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War when Salomon’s grandmother succumbed to the pressure of her circumstances and committed suicide. Salomon subsequently learned from her grandfather that almost all the female members of her family, including her mother, had taken their own lives.

In order to avoid a similar fate, Salomon decided ‘to undertake something wildly eccentric’.  She withdrew and recreated her life in a series of almost 800 gouaches, singing and humming as she worked. She gave the work the form of a singspiel with her family as the protagonists in a narrative that blended fact and fiction. A large section is devoted to her beloved singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn (1896-1962), whom she depicted numerous times. The creation of Life? or Theatre? helped Salomon to survive. But in 1943, married to another refugee and pregnant, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. She was twenty-six years old. 

Various new multimedia applications have been developed specially for the exhibition, which explore the layered and theatrical nature of the paintings. For example, visitors can listen to the music referred to in Salomon’s paintings and explore the meanings of the various art forms she employed. The exhibition concludes with the painted letter that Salomon added to her artwork in the spring of 1943.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive events programme, including children’s workshops symposium. For more information visit The exhibition can be seen until March 25, 2018.

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