August 22, 2019

Desperate times forged painter’s creative legacy

Charlotte Salomon perished in Auschwitz at the age of 26, but the astonishing legacy she left behind will be celebrated this month in an exhibition and on stage.

In her short life, Salomon was a prolific painter, but her style and sensibility were so unique that critics still have difficulty describing her artistry.

“An enormous and breathtaking visual instrument … a great work of European, Jewish and women’s culture … one of the most important art works of the 20th century,” writes art historian Archie Rand.

Her method varies, from single images to storyboard-like sequencing. Her early work, depicting childhood memories, is very colorful, but the work became increasingly abstract as she explored her internal musings, including painful images of her mother’s and grandmother’s suicides.

Both the exhibition, which opened April 12 at the Goethe Institut, and the stage production, opening in previews Thursday, April 19, at the Met Theater, go under the identical title of “Charlotte: Life? Or Theater?”

The title is taken from Salomon’s visual autobiography of more than 1,300 watercolor gouaches, which she painted in southern France between 1940 and 1942, before she was seized by the Nazis.

Salomon was born in Berlin, the daughter of a prominent physician and academic, and, in a rare exception for a Jew, she was admitted to the Berlin Fine Arts Academy in 1935, during Hitler’s regime. She was expelled three years later and found refuge with her grandparents in Villefranche, near Nice.

There she learned of her tragic family history of five suicides, all women, including her mother and grandmother. This awareness brought her to “the question,” as she put it, whether to take her own life or “undertake something crazy and unheard of” — an autobiography in art.

Just before she was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz, married and pregnant with her first child, she gave her massive collection to a friend, telling her, “Keep this safe, it is my whole life.”

Salomon’s father and stepmother, who survived the Holocaust by going underground in Holland, discovered the hidden treasure and gave it to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
The exhibition is made up of digital reproductions of 26 of Salomon’s paintings.

The stage production of “Life? Or Theater?” subtitled, “A Three Color Play with Music,” was created by Elise Thoron and Gary Fagin, and has been performed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, London, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

Director Louis Fantasia commented that “Charlotte Salomon created vibrant, original art as a ringing affirmation of life in the face of impossible odds.”

The stage production, he added, is “a brilliant piece of musical theater, emotionally charged, politically astute and filled with remarkable tunes. It is perhaps as close as we can come to a three-dimensional staging of the theater of the mind, of paint, water and paper, that she strove so brilliantly to create in the last two years of her life.”

Exhibit hours through July 30 at the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, are Mondays 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Fridays 9 a.m.-3 p.m. For additional information, call (323) 525-3388.

Following previews beginning April 19, the play will continue with regular performances at The Met Theater, 1089 N. Oxford St., April 26-May 27. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, phone (323) 957-1152. The play is presented in cooperation with the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

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Charlotte Salomon art