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Charlotte Salomon exhibit opens at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

The exhibition features nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon’s paintings from the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has announced the summer opening of Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?” This exhibition, featuring nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon’s paintings from the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, offers a rare opportunity to witness Salomon’s only major work, a masterpiece that survived the Holocaust and stands as a testament to her life and artistic vision.

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.

Life? or Theater? is an extraordinary work of art that deserves and needs to be seen,” said Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “Anyone with an interest in the creative spirit will be awed by the magnum opus of this young woman who felt she had no place in society. Her lifetime of work, created with no promise or hope of recognition, speaks deeply to how essential the act of art making can be in times of turmoil. We feel privileged to be able to bring this to a wider audience.”

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 after she completed Life? or Theater?, 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. 

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s 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, Aug. 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 or call 847-967-4800.

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