Critics’ Picks

Charlotte Salmon, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?) (detail), 1941–42, gauche on paper, 12 1/2 x 10".

Charlotte Salmon, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?) (detail), 1941–42, gauche on paper, 12 1/2 x 10".


Charlotte Salomon

Jewish Museum London
129-131 Albert Street Raymond Burton House
November 8, 2019–March 1, 2020

“I will live for them all,” Charlotte Salomon promised to the several women in her family who had taken their own lives. She kept her promise. Her means of survival? Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?), a monumental corpus of nearly eight hundred page-size gouaches that poured out of Salomon—obsessively, furtively—in the early 1940s. Two hundred of these original paintings hang elegantly behind glass panels in this exhibition. Arranged as storyboards and annotated with transparent overlays of text, the world she reckons with in these scenes is her own once removed, narrated by “Charlotte Kahn,” her avatar. Dark blues, burnt oranges, and reds wash across these surfaces, where unbearable familial truths—sexual violence, drug abuse, mental breakdowns, oedipal fantasies—play out through her characters like distorted childhood memories. But dreams of romance, Goethe, Beethoven, and cultural life in Weimar Berlin loom as large, her mercurial palette and adept hand following the shifting pitch of her mind and circumstance.

Salomon was killed in Auschwitz in 1943, twenty-six years old and five months pregnant, not long after completing her opus. Before the camps, she hid from the Nazis in the Côte d’Azur, painting. She set her epilogue gouaches in this seascape, their bright blues octaves higher than the hues of Nazi Berlin. While Salomon repeatedly portrayed the Third Reich, it was not to directly contemplate her own mortality; that was already a prerequisite for her art. Her quest for freedom from and within her own mind was unbound by time, reaching across generations. One of her final plates, in incandescent colors, shows the many bodies of a girl growing into a woman, sitting seaside, painting—alive. Is she one woman, or several? Written alongside it are two questions that, it would seem, Salomon needed no one but herself to answer: “What makes you shape and reshape yourself so brightly from so much pain and suffering? Who gives you the right?”