Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) is now renowned for a single artwork, Life? or Theatre?, comprising 784 paintings created in an intensive period between 1941 and 1942 and compiled by the artist in 1942 to form a vast narrative cycle that she presented as a musical play, a book and a memorial.
This wide-ranging art-historical study offers a new interpretation of Charlotte Salomon's unique aesthetic combination of image, music and text, with its rich range of references to both silent and sound cinema, opera and classical music, folk song and Berlin caberet. It traces the painter's equally knowing engagement with artists as diverse as Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Munch and Kollwitz. Establishing affinities in Salomon's work with the writings by Hannah Arendt, Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin, who shared her German Jewish experience of statelessness and menaced exile in Nazi-dominated Europe, Pollock also reveals Charlotte Salomon's artwork as a profound philosophical inquiry - drawing on Nietzsche - into the conditions of choosing life over death in catastrophic times.
In a reading informed by a rich range of insights drawn from feminist thories of subjectivity, story-telling, memory, trauma and sexual difference, Pollock confronts shocking new evidence of the extremity of the artist's experience as the threat of capture and destruction by the Nazis moved ever closer. She also exposes in Life? or Theatre? its profound testimony to the everyday crime of familial sexual abuse.
Through her in-depth analysis of selected paintings and the extraordinary range of ideas in this singular modernist artwork, Griselda Pollock's account claims for Charlotte Salomon her place in the art of the twentieth century and shows why Life? or Theatre? is one of its major artistic and cultural monuments.