This work is the concluding page of Charlotte Salomon's principal work Life? or Theatre? Editors place it the end of the final Epilogue section.
The final gouache harks back to the text that begins the work describing Salomon sitting beside the sea painting. A tune enters her mind and she starts to hum it. As she hums, she realizes the tune matches what she is painting...
Salomon completed the work at the Hotel Belle Aurore, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, 43.691556°N 7.330430°E, in summer 1942 (the proprietor later recalled her humming while she worked), but the location depicted is undoubtedly the gardens of the Villa L'Ermitage in Villefranche-sur-Mer, where she and her grandparents has been given refuge by a wealthy American of German descent named Ottilie Moore (Salomon's work was dedicated to her). The villa was located on the Avenue Cauvin. The Salomons lived in a small house at the back of the extensive gardens. The entire area has been redeveloped but the location, 43.703977°N 7.305241°E, can be determined from a surviving aerial photograph of the time (published p. 23 in the Royal Academy edition of her work, see also Pollock, pp. 73-5).
After completing the work, Salomon returned to Villa L'Ermitage where she spent the next year selecting and collating the 784 gouaches and some 200 transparent overlays that comprise the work from the 1357 gouaches she had executed for it. She left the work with Georges Moridis, a family doctor who was also active in the resistance movement, some weeks before she was deported by Alois Brunner. Moridis' widow recalled her words as "Take this. It's all my life" - "C'est toute ma vie" (Felstiner p. 236).
The page immediately preceding is the verso of four pages of densely packed text, carried on both sides, that conclude the epilogue. The final gouache depicts the fictional Charlotte Kann (representing Salomon herself) kneeling before the sea with brush and paper in her hand and the words Life or Theater inscribed on her back.
The concluding words of the epilogue, quoting ideas of Alfred Wolfsohn, Salomon's first love represented by Amadeus Daberlohn in the work, are as follows:
...und sie sah - mit wachgeträumten Augen all die Schönheit um sich her - sah das Meer spürte die Sonne und wusste: sie musste für eine Zeit von der menschlichen Oberfläche verschwinden und dafür alle Opfer bringen - - - um sich aus der Tiefe ihre Welt neu zu schaffen
Und dabei entstand
das Leben oder das Theater???
... And with dream awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew she had to vanish for a while from the human surface and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.
And from that came
Life or Theater???
Charlotte Salomon spent most of 1941 locked in a room in La Belle Aurore, a hotel in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat in the south of France, painting. She was trying to distract herself from the suicidal depression that plagued her family—it had claimed her mother, the aunt for whom she was named, and, most recently, her grandmother—and the impending Nazi invasion. She was 24 years old. Her main subject was her own life. Over the course of 18 months, she produced more than 1,300 gouache paintings, edited down to 769, that, taken together, were intended to be a singespiel, a play with music: she indicated the accompanying songs on the back of the drawings or on transparent overlays. She called it Life? Or Theater? Just before she was deported to Drancy concentration camp in 1943, she gave the entire project to a non-Jewish friend known only as Dr. Moridis. "Keep it safe," she told him. "It is my whole life."
Salomon died in Auschwitz. Life? Or Theater?, however, survived. It was first shown in 1961 in Amsterdam (where it was compared to Anne Frank's diary, which had come out the year before) and has been in regular circulation since, most recently in 2012 at Documenta, the international art festival in Kassel, Germany, where it was juxtaposed with work by an Egyptian artist that depicted the Tahrir Square protests. Which is altogether appropriate, since Salomon's work looks strikingly modern; at times, it resembles a graphic novel....
"It's a diary in a sense," says Joël Cahen, director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, to which Salomon's father and stepmother donated her paintings before they died. "There's a certain sense of her life. She empties her memory. It's a tragic life, but also a very hopeful life. She was a very promising artist. Had she remained alive, she would have been on the same level as Max Beckmann."
Life? Or Theater? is not strict autobiography—or, rather, it's autobiography with elements of fiction. Names are changed: Charlotte becomes Charlotte Kann, her stepmother Paula Lindberg is Paulinka Bimbam, her grandparents are the Knarres (in German, the word means "scratchy" or "prickly," which describes her relationship with them), and Alfred Wolfsohn, her stepmother's vocal coach and, in many ways, the central character in the story, is Amadeus Daberlohn ("penniless"). Some incidents may have been embellished; in later years, Paula Lindberg claims that many were the product of Salomon's imagination. In the end, as the title indicates, it probably doesn't matter....