In the early years of World War II, when life in Nazi Germany was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews, the family of Charlotte Salomon, a 23-year-old Jewish artist living in Berlin, felt she would be safer living with her grandparents in the south of France.
Soon after her arrival, her grandfather let her know her mother did not die of pneumonia, like she had been told as a child, but committed suicide. He also disclosed a tragic history of depression that claimed the lives of other family members.
Driven to despair by the revelations, she contemplated adding herself to the family’s suicide tradition. But at that moment, words of a former music teacher sprung upon her: “First fathom yourself in order to reinvent yourself.”
The words struck a chord deep within her. In response, she closed herself in a hotel room, where she spent two years feverishly painting a semi-fictional history of her life, which she titled “Life? or Theatre?”
Some 1,300 powerfully drawn and exquisitely colored gouaches tell her story about coming of age amid family tragedy, while increasing Nazi oppression emerges upon, and is reflected in, the completion of the project.
The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which holds the paintings as part of its collection, has loaned San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum nearly 300 pieces for its current exhibition of the same name.
It’s not so surprising that her paintings cover so much of her life — births, deaths, weddings, significant relationships, grieving and joy — which ended when she was killed in Auschwitz when she was 26.
But her skillful and exceptional use of German expressionism — its characteristic blending of seemingly disconnected imagery to show contexts — is what gives her work intensity and a sense of wonder.
Her use of color, within her expressionistic style, is particularly adept. In one painting of her grandmother grieving over the suicide of her daughter (Charlotte’s mother), the colors are varied and so dark that they are difficult to distinguish at first. But with their fascinating juxtaposition, they reflect the mood of the scene and evoke great emotional impact.
Salomon’s sense of the importance of her story, her unique artistry and a haunting quality that underlies the massive work in its entirety make the exhibition truly marvelous.
IF YOU GO
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit closes Oct. 16
Tickets: $10 general, $8 seniors and students, $5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays, free for 18 and under
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org