Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name



Fine Arts

Committee Chair

Jarosi, Susan


Psychic trauma in art; Psychoanalysis and art; Art--Psychological aspects; Salomon; Charlotte; 1917-1943. Leben oder theater?


This thesis explores the presence of the dialectic of trauma in Charlotte Salomon’s magnum opus, Life? or Theatre?, a series of more than seven hundred paintings created during her time in exile in France between 1941 and 1942. In this series, modeled on an illustrated operatic libretto, Salomon combined painted images, narrative commentary, dialogue, and musical notation to create a thinly disguised cast of characters – representing herself, family members, and friends – who reenact traumatic events that occurred prior to and throughout Salomon’s life. This visual manifestation of trauma raises questions about the formation and function of traumatic memory, and how those who experience trauma manage these memories. This thesis examines three critical essays on Salomon’s series; art historians Leah White, Ernst van Alphen, and Griselda Pollock each posit that Life? or Theatre? formed a comprehensive example of healing that functioned as a means to integrate traumatic memories into a personal narrative, a process outlined by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Pierre Janet and further elaborated in the last two decades by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. Despite Salomon’s attempts to assimilate traumatic events into her life story, this thesis considers the structural and visual evidence present in Life? or Theatre? that indicates that Salomon’s integration was not completed with the conclusion of the series. Rather, following the contributions of psychiatrist Judith Herman to the clinical study of trauma, it submits that Salomon’s series evinces an oscillation between the psychological states of intrusion and constriction: Life? or Theatre? presents a work in progress – a dialectic of trauma that was yet to be resolved.