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Life? Or Theatre?

The Jewish Historical Museum presents the story of a special woman. With the exhibition Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? the audience gets introduced to a unique artistic legacy. About 800 paintings tell a highly personal and tragic tale. 


This article first appeared in Hello Amsterdam Magazine.

The story of Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) is extraordinary. Born in Germany, she studies art school in Berlin. At the age of 21, Salomon flees the city in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution. She moves to the South of France to go and live with her grandparents.

‘Something wildly eccentric’

Soon after the outbreak of WWII though, tragedy strikes Salomon. Her grandmother takes her own life, not able to deal with the pressure of the war. Salomon’s grandfather explains to her that almost all female members of her family have committed suicide. This shocking news is deeply disturbing for Charlotte. She decides to do everything in her power to avoid the same fate. Salomon herself describes it as ‘to undertake something wildly eccentric’.

Massive artwork

Salomon fully dedicates herself to art. She starts recreating her life in a series of almost 800 gouache paintings. During the making of this massive artwork, consisting of paintings with text overlays, she constantly sings and hums. By doing so, Salomon gives her work the form of a singspiel, a genre of opera or music drama. Her family plays a significant role in the paintings, along with her singing teacher who she depicts numerous times. She mixes real-life events with fictional ones, and appropriately calls the body of works Life? or Theatre?.

Life? Or Theatre?
Charlotte Salomon, Gouache from Life? of Theatre?, 1940-1942. Collection JHM, Amsterdam © Stichting Charlotte Salomon.

Tragic ending

Creating the artwork helps Salomon to walk another path than so many of her female ancestors. But in 1943, tragedy hits in another way. In that year she is deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz, where she dies at the age of only 26.

In 1947, Her parents discover her life project in the South of France.  They decide to donate it to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam in 1971. Throughout the years, parts of the work have been displayed in museums around the world. Everywhere the artworks evoke intense reactions from the audience.

Complete work

Over the years, fragments of Life? or Theatre? has inspired many artists, filmmakers, writers,  and choreographers. But the artwork has never been displayed in its entirety until now. The Jewish Historical Museum is presenting the complete work exactly 100 years after the birth year of Charlotte Salomon. This exhibition explores the theatrical nature of the paintings and examines the layers of which it consists.

Life? Or Theatre?
Charlotte Salomon, Gouache uit Leven? of Theater?, 1940-1942. Collectie Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam © Stichting Charlotte Salomon.

Various multimedia applications have been developed especially for this occasion. For instance,  visitors can listen to the music Salomon refers to in her paintings. The exhibition also has an events program, like recitals and workshops. The museum additionally offers the opportunity to watch the artworks online through a special link.

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?  20 October 2017 – 25 March 2018. Jewish Historical Museum, Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1. 



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