Charlotte Salomon  22 April 2010

A choice made by Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernice Eisenstein, and Ernst van Alphen

4 June to 17 October 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernice Eisenstein, and Ernst van Alphen, three well-known figures from the literary world, each chose their favorite gouaches from the work Life? or Theatre? by the artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943). Their selection is on view at the Jewish Historical Museum from 4 June 2010 onwards, in each case accompanied by a personal explanation of the choice. These contributions take a fresh look at Salomon's now famous work, the images in which she told the dramatic story of her life.

The writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who is known for novels including Everything is Illuminated and the recently published book Eating Animals, found himself charmed and 'infected' by Salomon's work on an unplanned visit to the JHM. Since then, it has been a source of inspiration in his own creative work. For this exhibition, he chose the images to which he returns most frequently when he finds himself feeling that nothing is worth the trouble of writing down. There is no thematic or stylistic link between them, but Safran Foer calls them his antidote against indifference.

The Canadian artist and writer Bernice Eisenstein based her choices on an 'interior dialogue' with Charlotte Salomon. What impressed her most was the way in which Salomon found an artistic mode of expression to deal with her memories. It inspired Eisenstein in her own quest for the past, resulting in her book I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

Ernst van Alphen, professor of literary studies at the University of Leiden, chose works that display the complexity of Life? or Theatre? At first sight, the painted autobiography may appear to be interesting chiefly from an historical and art historical perspective. But Van Alphen shows that Salomon's work contains the recurring theme of masculine creative energy and her own struggle to be creative as a woman.

Charlotte Salomon grew up in Berlin, where she attended the academy of art. At twenty years of age she fled from Germany, immediately after Kristallnacht ('the Night of Broken Glass') on 9 November 1938. She went to stay with her grandparents, who had fled from Nazi Germany earlier and were living in the south of France. In 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War, her grandmother committed suicide. It was only then that Salomon found out that her mother too had killed herself, in 1926. Salomon took up painting as a way of dealing with these dramatic events. That is the origin of her life's work Life? or Theatre?

Salomon's work has belonged to the collection of the Jewish Historical Museum since 1971. This multi-faceted and moving work of art has served as a source of inspiration for many people working in the fields of literature, film, opera, and drama.

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