Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?” Review – Prolific and Impactful Images

When I received information about the June 19th opening of Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?”I was very interested in seeing it.  I have had the opportunity to view many exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center over several years and have found each of the exhibitions to be impressive and compelling.

There are some very special aspects to this exhibition that make it especially compelling. Charlotte Salomon’s story is the stuff of which operas are made and her paintings follow the pattern of an opera with a prologue, main section and an epilogue, with paintings matched to selected musical works.  Although Charlotte produced 1300 paintings that comprise this work, the 300 selected works convey the flavor of the work. The paintings are beautiful, detailed, and very moving. This is the first time that the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center has had an International fine arts exhibition.


In the early years of World War II, Charlotte Salomon, a 23-year-old Jewish artist from Berlin, fled to the south of France where she shut herself into a hotel room and spent two years feverishly painting the history of her life. She called it Life? or Theater?: A Play With Music, an astounding body of over 1,300 powerfully drawn and expressively colored gouache paintings conceived as a sort of autobiographical operetta on paper. One page after another, Salomon used an inventive mixture of images, dialogue, commentary and musical cues to tell a compelling coming-of-age story set amidst family suicides and increasing Nazi oppression.

After her work was completed, Salomon entrusted Life? or Theater? to a local doctor with the plea, “Keep this safe. It is my whole life.” Just one year later, the pregnant 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz and killed, but her singular creation survived. The exhibition highlights the main acts of Salomon’s sweeping narrative, allowing visitors to appreciate not just the individual strength of each piece but also its serial nature.


Joel Cahen, Director of the Jewish Historical Museum was kind enough to answer several questions the day I visited.  He was also there for a VIP introduction to the exhibition held the same evening, where he told the story of this exhibition and answered questions.  


Joel Cahen, kindly answered some of my questions during my visit.  He explained that in a period of enlightenment in Europe in the 1930s, the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam opened, as did others in Berlin, London and other major European cities.  The Amsterdam museum closed in 1944 and reopened in 1955.   


After Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?" was initially retrieved, it was exhibited at a museum in Amsterdam but a few years later, it was entrusted to Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, leaving Joel Cahen in charge of sharing these amazing works with the world, a job he takes very seriously.  This exhibition offers a rare and very special opportunity for local residents and visitors to view and react to this extensive body of work and a life that was moving, especially in the irony of Charlotte’s thrust to “Life” in view of her history and her sad ending.


 Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?" was organized by the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. Copyright holder is the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Amsterdam. The local presentation of the exhibition has been made possible by the generous and visionary support of The Craig and Donna Bernfield Family Foundation, Norman and Virginia Bobins, Nathan and Alyse Mason Brill, and Nicor Gas. The Golder Family Foundation is lead sponsor for all Illinois Holocaust Museum special exhibitions. This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.


Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?” is open to the public through September 21, 2014.


The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center will host two featured programs in conjunction with this exhibition. On Sunday, July 27, a family program co-presented by the Anti-Defamation League will allow children ages 4-14 to explore internal characteristics through art-based activities. On Thursday, August 7, the Museum will hold an artist panel featuring three Holocaust survivors and Chicago artists who will discuss how history and memory affect their art making. To register for these events or to learn more, visit Illinois Holocaust Museum website or call 847-967-4800.


Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?” complements the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s various permanent exhibitions:

  • The Zev and Shifra Karkomi Permanent Exhibition tells the story of the Jews and the minority groups persecuted in the Holocaust, with over 500 extraordinary artifacts, documents and photographs.
  • Make a Difference! The Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition teaches children ages 8 to 12 to respect differences, address bullying, and take a stand on issues that matter to them.
  • The Legacy of Absence Gallery is home to a collection of visual artwork by distinguished contemporary artists from around the world that reflect on historical violence, revealing the continued impact of genocide and atrocities.


 Go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum website for further information.

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
9603 Woods Drive   Skokie, IL   60077  








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