LIFE? OR THEATER? THE MASTERPIECE OF CHARLOTTE SALOMON FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME IN ITALY

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Life? or Theater? The masterpiece by Charlotte Salomon arrives for the first time in Italy. A work that combines art and history in the touching testimony of a young Jewish woman during the years of totalitarianism and racial persecution.

THE EXHIBITION

Self-portrait, Charlotte Salomon, 1940

Self-portrait, Charlotte Salomon, 1940

Until June 25th, Palazzo Reale will host Life? or Theater?, the masterpiece by Charlotte Salomon. A work that combines art and history in the touching testimony of a young Jewish during the years od totalitarianism in Europe. The young artist decided to paint the story of her life during a difficult existential crisis.

In 1939, at the age of twenty-one years, she escaped from Berlin and took refuge with her maternal grandparents in southern France. In less than two years, between 1940 and 1942, she produced an incredible series of images, built with a powerful design and highly expressive colours. She collected more than 1,300 in tempera, music records, pictorial variations and other evidences, creating a synthesis of the arts with elements belonging to painting, literature, music, theater, cinema and comics.

Charlotte Salomon conceived Life? or Theater? as a Singspiel – ie a musical drama – divided into three parts, with a prologue, a main part and a epilogue. The characters in the play are her family and friends, who are given fictional names, so that the author herself appears in the role of Charlotte Kann. Charlotte Salomon then interpreted her biographical story blending reality and fiction.

LIFE? OR THEATER?

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The prologue is set in the first years of Charlotte’s life in Berlin, until 1937. The main section focuses on her training and on her great love, the singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn (aka Amadeus Daberlohn), as well as the relationship between Wolfsohn and her step-mother, the opera singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg (aka Paulinka Bimbam). The epilogue covers the years between 1939 and 1942, spent in southern France, and also narrates the birth of Life? or Theater?. The work was completed a few months later when, in October 1943, at the age of twenty-six, Charlotte Salomon was deported and murdered in Auschwitz. At the moment of death, the artist was five months pregnant.

THE FAMILY SAGA

Charlotte Salomon at Villefranche-sur-Mer, 1939

Charlotte Salomon at Villefranche-sur-Mer, 1939

This autobiographical masterpiece derives from the unusual and courageous way in which Charlotte wanted to deal with the tragic past of her family, and the painful experience of the Jewish living in the city of Berlin. Following the suicide of her grandmother in 1940, and the discovery of the long chain of suicides on the maternal side of her family, she felt like she was facing a choice: taking off her life too, or doing “something really, totally insane.”

She went, so to speak, in retirement, and in a fit of unprecedented creative energy, she began to paint. During the summer of 1942, in the hotel where she was staying in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, Charlotte worked day and night to complete her work. After graduation, she entrusted Dr. Moridis of Villefranche-sur-Mer with Life? or Theater?, to take care of it, saying: “C’est toute ma vie.” At the end of the war, the doctor gave the paintings to Ottilie Moore, to whom it was dedicated. The American Ottilie had offered hospitality in Charlotte and hr grandparents in her villa in Villefranche and, in 1947, she donated the autobiographical work and a self-portrait of Charlotte to the artist’s parents.

THE HISTORY OF THE OPERA

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Albert and Paula Solomon, who knew nothing about the existence of Life? or Theater?, stored it into five boxes covered with fabric, and the paintings were kept there for over ten years. In 1959, Salomon’s series caught the attention of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and in 1961 the museum staged an exhibition of the opera. On November 20th, 1971 Albert and Paula Salomon donated the series to the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, where it is still preserved by the Foundation Charlotte Salomon.

A TOTAL WORK OF ART

Frame 20 JHM 4304 The Nazis come to power.

Frame 20 JHM 4304 The Nazis come to power.

The temperas of Life? or Theater? are painted in a rather free form. There are no boundary lines; indeed, irregular lines often cross the picture. The palette is bright and colourful, calling the choice of Charlotte to use only the three primary colours plus white. In the progress of the work, the style changes. At first narrative scenes are painted using vibrant colours; these then give way to summarily sketched images. Towards the end, the brush strokes become faster and faster, as if Charlotte knew that her time was running out.

One thing remains unchanged in the whole work: the characters are always depicted with just a few quick lines. Charlotte portrays herself and her family with a mixture of emotional warmth and narrative detachment

THE INFLUENCE OF CINEMA IN THE WORK OF CHARLOTTE

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Charlotte’s work seems to be very much influenced by cinema. The artist grew up in a time when the movies, in full bloom and transformation, were passing from silent black-and-white to color sound. Life? or Theater? could be compared to the storyboard of a movie. There’re typical elements, such as the concentration of multiple frames into a single image, the sudden close-ups, subsequent zoom in back and forth on the stage. Often a paper has several talking heads, side by side to its painted words, in a ploy reminiscent of cartoons where the characters indulge in long monologues with ever-changing facial expressions.

THE ROLE OF MUSIC IN THE WORK OF THE ARTIST

It seems like Charlotte, while painting or writing, whispered melodies to herself. Her work is, in fact, full of musical references to operas and folk songs. Charlotte often uses music as in the movies, to accentuate the mood and emphasise the emotional variation of the scenes. In other cases, music acts on the contrary: it represents quite the opposite to the atmosphere, so as to impart an ironic tone to the scene. Charlotte was introduced to music by her stepmother, Paula Salomon-Lindberg, famous for her operatic interpretations of Bach cantatas.

THE ROLE OF DIALOGUES IN THE WORK OF THE ARTIST

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The work unfolds in a temporal progression that marks the different biographical moments, clarifying the narrative complexity through the combination of painting written interventions, referring to real dialogues. The writings, which in the first section are distributed in graphics friezes of tissue to be superimposed to the underlying tempera, in the other two sections are an integral part of the images.

Going forward, the visual language of the work undergoes a further metamorphosis. If in the first section the figures are still represented privileging the procedures of a meticulous expressionism, in the two successive sections everything tends to become frantic, anxious, swirling. Speech and character, dialogue and scene, story and vision tend to merge into a single language.

CHARLOTTE SALOMON: LIFE? OR THEATER?

As if sensing her end, Charlotte accelerates work, tightening the times and greenhouse gesture. The brush strokes become fast and violent, in a crescendo of drama. The solar childhood wonder, often recalled with humorous touches, yields to the restlessness of youth and, subsequently, to the years when the amazing artistic talents is revealed. Charlotte also outlines the Nazis coming to power in the meantime.

Life? or Theater? drags the viewer into a collision with History. In the third section, which tells the life of Charlotte as a refugee in southern France, the power of the images becomes disruptive. The language becomes harsh and seems to merge into the same matter which it intends to tell. Experience and memory, tragic reality and representation are indistinguishable, just as life and theater.

Life? or Theater?

Palazzo Reale, Milan

Piazza del Duomo 12, Milan

Monday 2:30-7:30 pm; Tuesday\Wednesday\Friday 9.30 am-7.30 pm; Thursday\Saturday 9.30 am-10.30 pm

Ticket € 10

www.palazzoreale.it

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