A Girl’s Life

After the pogroms of November 9, 1938, conditions for Jews in Germany worsened. Salomon escaped to Nice, where her grandparents had found refuge in the villa of a wealthy American. (In Life? or Theater? the wrenching scenes of Charlotte's hurried departure from Berlin and Daberlohn take place without musical cues or commentary.) When war broke out the following year, her grandmother took her own life, and her grandfather revealed to Salomon the secret legacy of suicide that ran through her mother's family. The last section of Life? or Theater? is painted in a hurriedly expressionistic style, as if time were running out, or the artist were unwilling to linger over these painful events. It ends with several pages of densely packed text.

In 1940, Salomon and her grandfather were briefly interned in the French transit camp of Gurs—he died soon afterward. She moved to a small hotel in Cap Ferrat, and, to stave off madness, began working on Life? or Theater? A year later, she returned to the villa and married its sole remaining inhabitant, an Austrian refugee named Alexander Nagler. She was carrying his child when they were deported. Salomon was murdered upon arrival in Auschwitz; Nagler died a few months later. Albert and Paula Salomon had survived the war in hiding; when they traveled to Nice looking for news of their daughter, they were given Life? or Theater?, and it shocked them.

Portrait of the artist as a young girl: Salomon paints herself painting.
Courtesy The Jewish Museum/©2000 The Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Portrait of the artist as a young girl: Salomon paints herself painting.


Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theater?
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
Through March 25

In a recent New York Times article, Michael Kimmelman urged readers to view Salomon's work beyond the confines of "the eye-glazing, inviolate category of Holocaust artist." His point is well taken. Yet Salomon's oeuvre is also inseparable from the historical circumstances of its making. Her intense fervor for life, which flamed up in the face of gradual processes of dehumanization, was also deeply political. It was an urgent assertion of her existence against the twin threats of suicide and annihilation. As her world fell apart, she looked within herself and created it anew, daring to speak of private wounds and passions. Fueled by an inner need to give order to a life, her work remains among the most powerful refutations of the forces that destroyed her.

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