When German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917 1943) handed her gouache series Life? or Theater? over to a friend, she beseeched him to take good care of it, it is my entire life. A few months later, the five-months pregnant Charlotte was picked up by a Gestapo truck, deported to Drancy, and then on to Auschwitz, where she died upon arrival at the age 26.
Trauma haunts many of the pages, but there is defiance, too. Born of a family plagued by depression, the work Salomon left behind is, in a very real sense, her pièce de résistance in her own words, something wildly eccentric. A cycle of nearly 1,300 autobiographical gouaches, it combines creative force with pioneering personal narrative into one shattering document of self-expression.
Divided into three sections, the gouaches unveil a vivid self-portrait spanning across all facets of Charlotte's existence: from a complicated family life, marked by the suicides of nearly all female relatives; growing up in Berlin; her close relation to singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn; the rise of the Nazis; to her exile to France in 1939. Throughout, the artist challenges these destructive forces by deploying playful pseudonyms and fantastical elements alongside emotional candor, remarkable observation, and a meticulous visual memory. Her film strip-like sequences are interspersed not only with words but also musical suggestions, making Life? or Theater? the storybook for a whole musical, years before the heyday of that genre.
Without comparison, the gouaches are a triumph of personal truth and individual expression. Published here with a selection of the 450 most important pieces, Life? Or Theatre? is an unrivaled opus magnum from a great and ambitious artist, dark with her early death, but luminous with her precision, her lyricism, and her courage.
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