Auschwitz victims paintings at CJM illuminated by familys dark past

When an artist paints her own life story, where is the line between fact and fiction? And what if making the viewer wonder was the whole point?

In “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?,” an exhibition that opened March 31 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, these questions are front and center. With nearly 300 paintings by Salomon, a German Jewish Holocaust victim, the collection combines colorful vignettes and text that together tell the story of Salomon’s life in Berlin.

The artist showcases her experience as a student at a Berlin art academy in the late 1930s. © charlotte salomon foundation

It was a youth marked by depression and dark family secrets (her mother committed suicide when she was a small child, though Salomon wasn’t told until adulthood), all against the backdrop of World War II. The artist’s life was cut short at age 26, when she was deported to Auschwitz.

“The work is extraordinary on so many levels,” says Dara Solomon, the CJM’s curator. “To think that she created this in such a short period of time is really phenomenal, struggling with not only family depression, but also Nazis on her trail … One thing I find myself doing with this exhibit is really putting myself in her place.”

The gouaches that make up “Life? or Theatre?” are in fact a small portion of Salomon’s oeuvre. Created over a span of two years, during which Salomon shut herself into a hotel room in the south of France, the original collection, which Salomon titled “Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music,” actually consists of more than 1,300 numbered gouache paintings. Some include musical cues, apparently intended to be “read” in order as a sort of visual operetta.

The collection on display at the CJM, which is on loan from the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, presents the major story arc. The prologue includes her childhood and adolescence in Nazi Berlin; the main section revolves around a man who would be the artist’s first love and artistic inspiration; the epilogue focuses on her life in exile.

What art historians don’t know is how exactly how much of the story Salomon fictionalized. She gave fake names to most characters: her father’s second wife, Paula Lindberg, becomes Paulinka Bimbam; her own stand-in is named Charlotte Kann — but other changes are more subtle.

“The fact is, by calling it ‘Life? or Theatre?’ she was very consciously playing with reality,” says Solomon. “And I think she wanted us to know that.”

It has been speculated that her genetic predisposition toward depression and mental illness — which led to her mother’s suicide when the artist was 8 years old — was first manifesting itself during the time she was painting. Acquaintances said she was in a “feverish” state for much of the production, and rarely stopped to eat or sleep.

In one of her many self-portraits, Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) adds words that translate to “above average.” © charlotte salomon foundation

Upon completing the series, she gave the collection to a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” She was taken, pregnant, to Auschwitz within a year of finishing the series.

Solomon emphasizes, however, that the artist shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a “Holocaust artist,” and that the work stands alone critically. Salomon’s work has been shown extensively on the East Coast; the CJM exhibition is the first on the West Coast to showcase this particular collection. Solomon says CJM Director Connie Wolf had had her eye on it for a long time.

“What strikes me is how fresh [the paintings seem] for having been painted over 60 years ago,” says Solomon, emphasizing the vibrancy of the artist’s colors. “There’s a naïve quality about them. Today there’s a lot of attention given to untrained artists … and she has that quality — there is something about it that seems very contemporary.”

She says the narrative experience the ordered paintings provide also makes the exhibition unique.

“It’s very cinematic in places, and just the act of looking at the work and reading the text … it’s a solitary experience,” Solomon says. “You’re really in her world. It’s just you and her.

“I think it’s very clear that, on some level, she was making this art in order to save herself,” the curator adds. “And it makes you reflect — if you were in her shoes, faced with this horrible tragedy, would art be your response? What else might you do?”

“Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?”
runs through July 31 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information:

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.