It is in this context, the loss of everything dear and familiar, under threat of arbitrary arrest, concentration camps and death, that we must place the production of what is perhaps one of the most innovative, poetically moving, beautifully crafted and, above all, intellectually stimulating Modernist art works created in Europe’s darkest hours: Charlotte Salomon’s life cycle Life? Or Theatre?
Griselda Pollock’s volume is dedicated to both further widen the growing awareness and importance of the work and to deepen our understanding of it through the prism of an art historical approach to the work and a ‘close reading’ of a number of key paintings contained in its 784 elements. In this, I would argue, she only partially succeeds.
Pollack cogently builds an unassailable case that the work should not be read as a simple autobiographical depiction of the short life of Charlotte Salomon but must be seen as a deeply thoughtful questioning of life and its meaning through what Pollock terms the ‘theatre of memory’ deployed by Salomon in Life? Or Theatre?
In examining what Pollock labels the ‘everyday’ and the ‘event’ she argues that Life? Or Theatre? is both an attempt to depict and understand the event (the rise of racial anti-Jewish fascism in Germany) alongside the ‘everyday’ life of an artistic and intellectually aware Germany Jewish household, and in particular the oppression of women, sexual abuse and suicide.
Crucially she argues that the work is one of hope, that even in the most dark and dreadful moments we must find a way to live, not merely to survive, but to hold onto life and live a full and meaningful existence.