• Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon®

Charlotte Salomon spent most of 1941 locked in a room in La Belle Aurore, a hotel in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat in the south of France, painting. She was trying to distract herself from the suicidal depression that plagued her family—it had claimed her mother, the aunt for whom she was named, and, most recently, her grandmother—and the impending Nazi invasion. She was 24 years old. Her main subject was her own life. Over the course of 18 months, she produced more than 1,300 gouache paintings, edited down to 769, that, taken together, were intended to be a singespiel, a play with music: she indicated the accompanying songs on the back of the drawings or on transparent overlays. She called it Life? Or Theater? Just before she was deported to Drancy concentration camp in 1943, she gave the entire project to a non-Jewish friend known only as Dr. Moridis. “Keep it safe,” she told him. “It is my whole life.”

Salomon died in Auschwitz. Life? Or Theater?, however, survived. It was first shown in 1961 in Amsterdam (where it was compared to Anne Frank’s diary, which had come out the year before) and has been in regular circulation since, most recently in 2012 at Documenta(13), the international art festival in Kassel, Germany, where it was juxtaposed with work by an Egyptian artist that depicted the Tahrir Square protests. Which is altogether appropriate, since Salomon’s work looks strikingly modern; at times, it resembles a graphic novel. You can see it for yourself at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where 278 of the paintings will be on display until September 21.

“It’s a diary in a sense,” says Joël Cahen, director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, to which Salomon’s father and stepmother donated her paintings before they died. “There’s a certain sense of her life. She empties her memory. It’s a tragic life, but also a very hopeful life. She was a very promising artist. Had she remained alive, she would have been on the same level as Max Beckmann.”

  • Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
  • Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden at the Villa L’Ermitage, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, 1939

Life? Or Theater? is not strict autobiography—or, rather, it’s autobiography with elements of fiction. Names are changed: Charlotte becomes Charlotte Kann, her stepmother Paula Lindberg is Paulinka Bimbam, her grandparents are the Knarres (in German, the word means “scratchy” or “prickly,” which describes her relationship with them), and Alfred Wolfsohn, her stepmother’s vocal coach and, in many ways, the central character in the story, is Amadeus Daberlohn (“penniless”). Some incidents may have been embellished; in later years, Paula Lindberg claims that many were the product of Salomon’s imagination. In the end, as the title indicates, it probably doesn’t matter.

Charlotte was born in Berlin. Her father was a prominent surgeon who invented a procedure to fix gastric ulcers, and her mother was a nurse; the two met in an army hospital during World War I. The family was fully assimilated. They celebrated Christmas, and during a trip to Rome, attended an audience with the Pope. (Charlotte’s depiction shows the Pope asking, “What are all these little Jews doing here?”) Charlotte’s mother was frequently depressed—all of Charlotte’s paintings show her lying in bed, telling little Charlotte about how she would write her letters from heaven. She killed herself when Charlotte was nine by jumping out a window, although Charlotte didn’t find out the truth until much later; she’d been told it was influenza.

Her father remarried a few years later to an opera singer, and Charlotte was infatuated with her beautiful, glamorous stepmother. After the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Jews were barred from the professions, and her stepmother became involved with the Jewish arts underground, a connection which may have eventually saved her life. It was through the Jewish Arts Council that she met Wolfsohn/Daberlohn. And here the prelude ends and the main portion of Life? Or Theater? begins.

  • Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon®
  • Charlotte in love (to the tune of “Ja, die Liebe hat bunte Flügel” from Carmen)

Daberlohn, whose entrance into the story is heralded by the Toreador Song from Carmen, is veteran of World War I. He has written a book about suffering from shell shock. He has lots of theories. He lies on the sofa and expounds on them for 16 pages at a time. He references Nietzsche. He pines for love of Paulinka, who exasperatedly tells him, “There are other people besides you, you know.” You have probably met a Daberlohn. If, like Charlotte, you become infatuated with him, you will look back on your younger self and wonder what the hell you were thinking. But Daberlohn has one redeeming factor: he encourages Charlotte’s painting. (Well, he tells her it’s “above average,” and she is elated.) After Charlotte flees to the south of France to live with her grandparents and her grandmother kills herself, it’s this philosophy that inspires her to work and stay alive.

“Whether or not he loved her or if he was manipulating her, he inspired her to create a body of artwork, as opposed to killing herself,” says Arielle Weininger, curator of the IHM.

But for Salomon, painting was more than therapy.

“The important thing about Life? Or Theater? is the quality of the drawings,” says Cahen. “Charlotte was trained as an artist at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. She studied with the German expressionists like Max Beckmann. She used the same colors, there were a lot of similarities. But [Life? Or Theater?] became a total artwork, a combination of music and paintings and story. She used the technique of an animation artist. She was very much before her time.”

  • Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon®
  • Charlotte’s parents’ wedding (music: “Wir winden dir den Jungfernkranz” by Carl Maria von Weber)

You can see Salomon’s technique evolve throughout Life? Or Theater? The early drawings are full of detail, with elaborate stage directions, dialogue, and musical cues notated on the back, or sometimes on overlays of tracing paper. Charlotte’s parents’ honeymoon is shown in panels, like a storyboard; the apartment they move into is shown from above, like a dollhouse; after Charlotte’s mother commits suicide, a skeleton lives in its walls. But after Daberlohn appears, Salomon begins writing the dialogue directly on the paintings, like a graphic novel. The drawing style changes, too. The lines become looser and wilder, reflecting Charlotte’s almost manic desire to live and find the beauty in life. “I will live for all of them!” she declares, after her grandmother dies and she learns about her tragic family history.

“We don’t know why it changed,” says Weininger. “At the end, maybe she felt time was short. The richness and depth of the early scenes fades away.”

Salomon never quite finished her story: the last few pages are all text, except for the final image of Charlotte sitting by the water sketching, with the words “Leben Oder Theater” written on her back. Some of the final pages were separated from the rest of the work and rediscovered only a few years ago; they imply (possibly) that Charlotte killed her grandfather with poison left over from one of her grandmother’s suicide attempts. But, says Weininger, like many things in Life? Or Theater?, it remains ambiguous.

  • Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon®
  • The Nazis march to the Horst-Wessel-Lied.

In real life, Salomon’s grandfather died in early 1943. That same year, Salomon married Alexander Nagler, whom she had met through Otille Moore, an American who lived in the south of France and harbored Jews during the Vichy years. It’s unclear whether Nagler was actually Jewish, but they both registered as Jews at the town hall when they married, which, when the Nazis finally invaded, made it very easy for them to find. It remains a mystery why they registered. It’s possible they didn’t realize the extent of the Final Solution. Or perhaps they thought that since Salomon was, at the time, four months pregnant, she would be spared. She was not; she was killed as soon as they were transferred from Drancy to Auschwitz. Nagler died four months later.

Salomon’s father and stepmother survived the war, including two incarcerations in concentration camps. In Life? Or Theater? Paulinka uses her “intelligence and charm” to rescue her husband from Sachsenburg. It’s unclear what, exactly, that entailed, but it was a “great effort.” Later, says Cahen, they escaped Westerbork under the pretext that Dr. Salomon needed to return to Amsterdam to collect his medical equipment in order to help the Nazis with their sterilization experiments. Instead they went into hiding. In 1947, they made their way to the south of France to find out what had become of Charlotte. They found Moore, who had returned the previous year and collected Salomon’s artwork from Dr. Moridis. The Salomons took the paintings back to Amsterdam. They sealed them in archival boxes and didn’t look at them for the next ten years.

The Jewish Historical Museum has put all the paintings onto a website, where you can view both the front and back and listen to the musical accompaniment. (Cahen says it’s best viewed on a tablet.) But it can’t quite compare to seeing the paintings in real life, with their holes at the corners where Salomon hung them on the wall to dry because she was in such a hurry. At the museum, you feel as though you are literally walking through Charlotte’s life.

“Joël talked about the choice of the title,” says Weininger. “Your mother is telling you she will commit suicide. How is that OK? And then the other suicides, and the larger world with the Nazis. It must be theater, because it can’t be life.”