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Holocaust Museum displays Charlotte Salomon masterpiece

Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon¨
Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon¨

German-born artist Charlotte Salomon created more than 1,300 gouache paintings in her short life. It was remarkable enough in its own right, but even more so considering her dire circumstances.

The majority of her paintings completed between 1941 and 1943 were created while hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, an autobiographical collection titled “Life? or Theater?” She was captured by the Nazis while pregnant in 1943 and killed at only age 26 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s latest traveling exhibition, Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?” opens June 19, a rare showcase from Salomon’s masterpiece, which she called at one point a lyrical drama.

The exhibition will feature nearly 300 of her works from Life? or Theater?. They come from a collection at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Illinois Holocaust Museum CEO Susan Abrams calls “Life? or Theater?” “an extraordinary work of art that deserves and needs to be seen.”

“Anyone with an interest in the creative spirit will be awed by the magnum opus of this young woman who felt she had no place in society,” Abrams said. “Her lifetime of work, created with no promise or hope of recognition, speaks deeply to how essential the act of art-making can be in times of turmoil.”

In the early years of World War II, Salomon fled to the south of France, holing up in a hotel room where she spent two years tirelessly painting the history of her life. That history included a body of more than 1,300 drawn and expressively-colored gouache paintings conceived as a sort of autobiographical operetta on paper.

Using an inventive mixture of images, dialogue, commentary and musical cues, Salomon told a compelling coming-of-age story, but not a typical one — a story set amid family suicides, other tragedies and escalating Nazi oppression.

“Keep this safe. It is my whole life,” Salomon reportedly said when she entrusted “Life? or Theater?” to a local doctor. Only a year after she completed the collection, she was sent to Auschwitz, but her artistic creation outlived her.

By all accounts, the power of her work is not only in viewing the expressive individual pieces but experiencing them as a gestalt, which the museum exhibition makes possible.

The exhibition runs through Sept. 21 and is available for viewing during a regular visit to the museum. A featured documentary and discussion, in conjunction with the exhibition, will be held June 29. Directed by Franz Weisz, “Life? or Theater?” explores the haunting legacy of Salomon and the remarkable autobiographical painting series which is respresented in the museum exhibition.

The Skokie Review will fully explore the exhibition in its June 26 issue and on-line after it opens.

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