Self-Portrait, Charlotte Salomon
Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam © Charlotte Salomon Foundation
Discover one of the most important and powerful achievements of the 20th century – the singular and complex artwork Life? Or Theater? by German-Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon – which through imagery and text tell the slightly fictionalized and theatrically imagined story of Salomon’s family. Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater? is on view August 19 through December 4, 2022, in Holocaust Museum Houston’s (HMH) Edith and Josef Mincberg Gallery.
This major exhibition features over 200 small gouaches on paper which Salomon created as part of a larger body of work in the early 1940s when in hiding from Nazi oppressors. These remarkable gouaches unveil a vivid self-portrait spanning across all facets of Salomon’s existence: from a complicated family life, growing up in Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, to her exile to France.
In 1940 Salomon and her grandfather were interned by the French authorities in the Pyrenees; the same year her grandfather revealed an extensive family history of severe mental illness that included suicides by her aunt, mother and grandmother. In the chaotic conditions after the German invasion of France, they were released from the internment camp. While in hiding between late 1940 and early 1942, in a burst of creativity culminating into approximately 1,300 pieces, Salomon painted a life marked both by personal tragedy and external political events, combining images, texts and musical references, and pioneering a practice of honest and artistic self-expression.
Life? Or Theater? stops here where it begins. Acquaintances reported that Salomon was so possessed during its creation that she only rarely stopped to eat, drink, and sleep. When she was finished, she handed all the pages to a friend, saying, “Take good care of it. It is my life.”
Salomon survived for one year beyond the completion of Life? Or Theater?, a year that became increasingly dangerous after the Italians occupied Southern France and began to deport Jews to camps in Germany. Her grandfather passed away and Salomon, sheltering in a villa owned by an American woman, married the villa’s sole remaining resident, an Austrian refugee named Alexander Nagler. The marriage doomed the couple as it was Nagler’s attempt to get a marriage license at the local police station that gave them away as Jews. Salomon was 26 and five months pregnant when both she and her husband were picked up by the Gestapo in 1943. Salomon was killed immediately on arrival at Auschwitz; Nagler was murdered a few months later.
The exhibition Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater? has been organized in cooperation with the Amsterdam Jewish Museum. Images Amsterdam © Charlotte Salomon Foundation.