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Christian Boltanski Photo

Christian Boltanski

French Sculptor, Photographer, Painter, and Film Maker

Born: September 6, 1944 - Paris
Died: July 14, 2021 - Paris
"Art-making is not about telling the truth but making the truth felt."
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Christian Boltanski
"You can tell the truth more truthfully than with the truth itself."
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Christian Boltanski
"The photo replaces the memory. When someone dies, after a while you can't visualise them anymore, you only remember them through their pictures."
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Christian Boltanski
"I never take photographs myself. I don't feel like a photographer, more like a recycler."
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Christian Boltanski
"The human being dies two deaths, the physical death and then the immaterial death when the image and the memory of the individual fades."
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Christian Boltanski
"I've filled my whole life trying to preserve the memory of living, in the fight against dying. Perhaps the only thing I've done, since stopping death is impossible, is to show this fight. The fight itself does not satisfy us either."
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Christian Boltanski
"The science about life is very optimistic. Every second, four people in the world die, and six are born. This is optimistic."
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Christian Boltanski
"Photography is used to give evidence, and the evidence is always deceiving."
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Christian Boltanski
"I was lucky to be born during the time of minimalism. I think I can be colder because of this. In form I speak with minimalism but my feeling is sentimental - I am a sentimental minimalist."
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Christian Boltanski
"In most of my photographic pieces I have manipulated the quality of the evidence that people assign to photography, in order to subvert it, or to show that photography lies - that what it conveys is not reality but a set of cultural codes."
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Christian Boltanski
"Every time I ask questions about sex, I always end up asking questions about death."
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Christian Boltanski
"In science we see progress. In art there is no progress. In art the questions have always been the same. From the beginning of time till now, we are always asking the same questions. There are very few. We are looking for God, we are asking why we die, we are contemplating sex and the beauty of nature. The only thing that changes is that, in each period of questioning, we speak with the language of our time."
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Christian Boltanski
"The more you work, the less you exist. I believe that the artist is like someone carrying a mirror in which everyone can look and recognize themselves, so that the person who carries the mirror ends up being nothing."
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Christian Boltanski
"I believe that at the beginning of the life of every artist there is some kind of trauma. We have a problem and all of our life we try to speak about this problem. My trauma was historical. When I was three or four, all the friends of my parents were survivors of the Holocaust; they spoke a lot about that. My father was hiding during the war, it was something totally present when I was a boy. It is sure that it has made me."
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Christian Boltanski
"I think it is very important to know that we are going to die. Now we refuse the fact of dying. There was once serenity in dying where you had all your children around you in a ceremony and would utter your last words with something like, 'I love the sky'."
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Christian Boltanski

Summary of Christian Boltanski

Boltanski was a multimedia artist whose preoccupation with memory, the holocaust, mortality, and mourning earned him a reputation as a leader within the Conceptual Art and Post-Minimalism movements. His work consisted of highly individual narratives that were often constructed from seemingly inconsequential found materials such as family photographs, magazine cuttings, postcards, biscuit tins, toys, and discarded clothes. His early autobiographical pieces deliberately blurred the lines between fiction and reality as a way of questioning the idea of artistic myth making. As Boltanski matured, his work continued with these thematic preoccupations, but he became much more outward looking, creating complex and haunting monumental installations that would bring him international renown.


  • Boltanski habitually came back to the theme of how we mourn and memorialize our dead. The Holocaust had cast a shadow over his own upbringing, but his numerous "memorial projects" also connected to the more universal themes of memory, history, and one's own mortality. Indeed, the spectre of death loomed over Boltanski who once stated that making art was his only means of staying alive; a "thing to do so that I don't die", as he put it.
  • Boltanski's work is autobiographical, but the stories he tells deliberately overlap with fiction. Combining images and objects from his own history with similar material that did not belong to him or his direct family, he created what he called an "individual mythology" which was a way to present his own life history as evidence of the collective memory of all mankind. It was also a way to debunk the mythology around artistic individualism.
  • Boltanski's Saynètes Comiques (Comic Vignettes) series featured linear snapshot photographs of the artist posing in various disguises (dressed for a funeral, a wedding, a birthday ...) with some backgrounds filled in using pencils and pastels. These pieces saw Boltanski broaden the scope of his engagement with memory and "artificial history", but by more humorous means. He was insistent, however, that his vignettes be treated, not as comedy, or even satire. He saw his vignettes rather as a way of introducing the theatre of tragedy into his art.
  • There was a strong sense of aimlessness underlining Boltanski's art. In installations such as Wheel of Fortune (2011), he invited his audience to ponder their very own existence and to ask one of the biggest questions of all: why have I been placed on this earth? For Boltanski there was no logic to human existence and that everything in life was ultimately linked to chance. This idea transferred to an impulsiveness in his artmaking which he once likened to the caprices of baking a "homemade cake".

Biography of Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski pictured in 1990

Speaking of an oeuvre dominated by the themes of memory, chance, and mortality, Boltanski once stated, "I like looking at the finger of God. Why it takes one [of us] and not another, why this one or that one, why now or why then. The finger of God is always on us".

Progression of Art


L' Album de la famille D. 1939-1964

L' Album de la famille D. 1939-1964 is a collection of 150 photographs borrowed from the family album of Boltanski's friend, Michael Durand, a Parisian gallery owner. Boltanski said, "I who knew nothing about them [the family] wanted to try to reconstitute their life by using these images which, taken at all the important moments, would remain after their death as proof of their existence. I could discover the order in which the photographs had been taken and the relations that existed between the persons represented in them. But I realised that I could go no further, because these documents appeared to belong to the memories common to any family, that each person could recognise himself in these vacation or birthday photographs. These photographs did not teach me anything about the Family D., they returned me to my own memories".

The work is one of the earliest indications of the artist's fascination with the illusion of photography, not just in the way it freezes memories, but also in the way it can allude to the idea of defeating death. Historian Lyn Gumpert stated: "these images are less reconstructing the history of the family D., as witnesses of collective rituals which we refer to common memories, such as the family party or holiday by the sea. What the album reveals, is also the fragility of our lives, crystallized in some events so stereotypical that they evacuate what is singular, what desperately, however, we try to fix in each photograph, and which always confuses in a collective, anonymous experience, as soon as the photograph leaves the private context [of the family album]".

As an introduction to its 2019 career retrospective, Center Pompidou de Paris presented L' Album de la famille D. at the beginning of the trajectory of Boltanski's oeuvre: "this work strongly marks Boltanski's career. Time, memory, death, photography already [in 1971] draw the quadrilateral within which the artist's future research will develop. This means that this route [through the exhibition] does not look like a path strewn with roses. Nearly half a century later, the Center Pompidou exhibition verifies, through dark spaces, barely lit by a pale electric light, this path marked out by theaters of shadows, black mirrors, altars, reliquaries, photographs of corpses, black portraits, the dead".

Installation: 150 photographs displayed across the span a museum wall


Le Mariage des parents: Saynètes Comiques (Comic Vignettes) series

In 1974 Boltanski produced a series entitled Saynètes Comiques (Comic Vignettes) having seen a performance by a German burlesque actor named Karl Valentin. Boltanski stated: "I got the idea of telling the story of my childhood, since this was my 'brand image,' but in a new way, in a clownish way". Boltanski restaged some significant events from his own family history - here through a trio of self-portraits he re-enacts his parents' wedding, posing (from left to right) as his father, a Catholic priest, and his mother. However, the series was not meant to be read as farce. Boltanski said: "The Saynètes Comiques were more of a work on the tragic. I didn't do them to make people laugh; it was a work on the human condition, the idea of a clown, but not a funny clown".

In some of the pieces, Boltanski embellished the photographs with oil crayons in a style that recalled Toulouse-Lautrec's posters, in others (including Le Mariage des parents) he added hand-written notes and/or drawn elements to the photographs in white ink. Taken as a whole, the series had an informality and spontaneity that critics have likened to street-theatre and, because of the way he retold his past through what he called "historical fictions", even the Spaghetti-Westerns (a name given to a series of films dealing explicitly with American history that were produced by Italians in Italy during the 1960s). Commenting on his performances in Saynètes Comiques, Boltanski stated (in the third person): "he outdid himself, he surpassed himself, he took a step back and started making fun of himself. He stopped talking about his childhood and started playing with it".

Silver Proof Photographs with White Ink


Réserve du Musée des Enfants I et II

Réserve du Musée des Enfants I et II is an installation featuring piles of children's clothes crammed into rows of metal shelving lit by desk lamps that are attached to the upper shelves (des Enfants I) and a set of shadowy black-and-white photographs of anonymous children which Boltanski had retrieved from newspapers and magazines (des Enfants II). The work was housed in the former reserve of the Children's Museum, in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art. The museum says of the installation: "Combining the sobriety of minimal art and the emotional violence of expressionism, the work [...] is rooted in an existential relationship to the world, where everyone can recognize and identify".

Boltanski began making installations using second-hand clothes in the late 1980s, exploring how fabric can invoke associations with the human body. He was drawn to the idea that fleeting lifespans could be represented by displaying clothes that have long outlived the bodies that carried them. This installation was designed to resemble the warehouses where Nazis stored the clothes of deported individuals and, when displayed in this way, the clothes become emotionally arresting symbols of history and death. As Boltanski himself pointed out, "Someone's photograph, garment or dead body are pretty much the same thing: there was someone there, now they're gone".

There is a disconcerting olfactory dimension to the work too. As the academic Mateusz Kapustka wrote after visiting the installation: "First, there is the smell [...] we immediately perceive the disturbing odour of old clothes, an indefinable trace of their former, now absent wearers [...] Such an olfactory notion of the human body does not belong to the ordinary museum experience. Thus, Boltanski's simulation of intimacy and its instantaneous denial are intensified within a very short moment, between smelling and seeing the work. The uniformity and anonymity of a common human odour arising from used things blurs the identity of their former owners, hitting our olfactory organ even before we apprehend the visual topography of the installation".

Installation, fabric, metal, lamps - The Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris


The Reserve of the Dead Swiss

In what many believe to be the artist's career defining work, Boltanski arranges 42 photographs featuring men, women, and children into an ordered group. Each framed photograph is lit with a small electric lamp to recreate the quietly glowing hum of candlelight. The photographs lean on a series of three shelves, one above the other, while white fabric featuring embroidered passages is bunched up below them, underlining the theme of history and how history is represented. Aside from the allusion to a "memento mori" the use of the spotlight more than hints at the idea of persecution and torture, and, especially when seen in context of the artist's earlier works, invites spectators to see in the faded faces references to the holocaust. However, by nominating the victims as Swiss, a neutral people, this association is rather confused and asks one to consider other potential historical connotations.

Boltanski gathered the photographs for this installation at random over several years from the obituaries section of the Swiss newspaper Le Nouvelliste du Valais. He re-photographed these small and grainy reproductions and then enlarged them. This process of digitisation gradually obscured the identity of the individual, leaving only a trace of their human presence behind.

Journalist John Quinn suggests that historically, "images of the recently deceased - as seen in newspapers, or on cemetery headstones in (predominantly) Catholic European countries - were sad affairs. The dead soul was captured as if they had just been told they were about to die: their faces in vague shock, eyes and mouths fading to black holes" and that Boltanski had become "keenly aware" of the "fascination [and] horror" that these images provoked.

Arranging the blurry photographs into a grid formation further desensitises the personalities of the subjects, turning them even into statistics, and thus prompting sobering reflections on the nature of human history and a reminder that life is fleeting and time fades memories (even through photographic "evidence"). Indeed, historian Paul McNally describes how Boltanski's "use of photography here is not concerned with questions into the aesthetic quality of artistic excellence but with the banal reproducibility and multiplicity of photography and importantly of the multiplicity (and regeneration) of human life and death". Describing Reserve: Dead Swiss as the artist's "most impressive work" he concluded that when seen collectively, the photographs "take on a monumental or cenotaph-like effect".

Installation, photography, fabric, lamps

The Inhabitants of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan in 1939 (1998)

The Inhabitants of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan in 1939

Writing for the New York Times in 1998, journalist Alan Riding stated that for a country "already crowded with museums dedicated to every imaginable topic, it was at the very least strange that until now France had no Jewish Museum worthy of the name". Given that "more Jews live in France than any other European country except Russia" and that "the fate of France's Jews in World War II, when 78,000 were deported, and after which only some 2,000 returned, is barely addressed", it seemed almost incredulous to some that the new Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme's (Museum of Jewish Art and History) only direct reference to the Holocaust could be "found in an installation by Christian Boltanski that includes a wall peppered with plaques that carry the names, birthplaces and professions of Jews who lived in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan in the late 1930's".

Featuring a series of 80 black lettered names posted onto a wall in the old courtyard, the paper plaques resemble the macabre death announcements that were once posted onto the walls of the cities in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Each of the hotel residents worked as artisans (tailors, furriers, hat-makers, and the like) until the German occupation when many were arrested and sent to death camps. Below each name, Boltanski adds not just personal details, but in cases where it was known, the date of the convoy that took them away to their death.

Boltanski made this simple but devastating installation as a testament to individuals who brought the enlivened the building and made their own contribution to French cultural life. His installation, which this time touched directly and unambiguously on the theme of the fragility of human destiny, and the violence of Jewish history, was made from fly-posted paper which is itself inherently fragile; much like the passing of memories that would have otherwise disappeared forever. Riding wrote that the unveiling of Boltanski's work initiated a much larger discussion on "how far the Holocaust should be treated as a central event of Judaism and whether it should be commemorated in Jewish museums or through separate Holocaust memorials". But whatever the pros-and-cons of that debate, the art critic Jonathan Jones argued that Boltanski had "found an almost fairytale-like way to kick us out of our forgetfulness [and that] made him one of the great consciences in contemporary art".

Printing on Paper - Museum of Jewish Art and History, Paris

The Whispers (2008)

The Whispers

The Whispers is a sound installation that Boltanski made for the 2008 Folkestone Triennial arts festival in England. He chose to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, acknowledging the role Folkestone played as a departure point for hundreds of thousands of soldiers heading towards the battlefields of Belgium and France. A series of benches were installed facing the English Channel towards France, and behind each bench is a stone pyramid containing sound recordings of soldier's letters sent during the war. When visitors sit on the bench the recording is triggered.

Each recording tells its own story: two recount the interaction between soldiers and their fiancées; another plays a transcript of a letter from a soldier to his parents; another recounts a soldier's thoughts on the final days before heading into combat (and possible death). There is a quiet intimacy invoked through these recordings and we are reminded how especially personal the craft of letter writing was during the war years. But, as with many of his other works, Boltanski renders his subjects anonymous, removing individual names as a reminder that these stories are representative of so many young men who lost their lives fighting the Great War.

Recreating these stories in the medium of sound also highlights the fragility of these moving stories and how easily they can disappear through time. We can see the influence of Boltanski's fleeting and ephemeral sound art on British artist Susan Philipsz, particularly her work War Damaged Musical Instruments, made for Tate Gallery in 2015-16. Her work features recordings on damaged musical instruments that, like Boltanski, used sound excerpts and as a reminder of the human sacrifice and suffering brought on by the ills of war.

Sound Installation - Folkestone, England

Chance (The Wheel of Fortune) (2011)

Chance (The Wheel of Fortune)

In 2011 Boltanski presented his Chance installation for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. As the title suggests, Chance was an exploration of the ideas of luck and fate and featured his Wheel of Fortune, a vast loop machine, stretched across a scaffold of steel piping, that picked up random pictures of hundreds of faces of new-born children as a means invoking the idea of the "lottery of life".

The artist installed an imposing structure to suggest the haunting quality of an abandoned factory space which he reinforced with blunt white strip lights. Through the centre of this structure a long scroll of paper runs in perpetual sequence on a motorised track, much like a movie film strip. The scroll features photographs gathered from Polish newspaper birth announcements. The scroll pauses intermittently allowing a single face is projected onto a huge, illuminated, screen before resuming its journey along the track. The Wheel of Fortune also places an emphasis on the multiplication of the human population and the idea that world birth-rates continue to exceed death rates. Boltanski further reinforces this concept with a giant red digital counter that displays daily statistics on birth and deaths. Reducing human lives to numbers in this way is a stark reminder that we are one of billions within the world population and that life is negligeable, and that each of us is headed towards death.

The art critic Ira Ferris wrote, "The 'Wheel of Fortune' suggests there is no particular order in the flow of babies, yet the machine works so perfectly precisely that there seems to be nothing unforeseen or aimless in this production. In fact, the image of a factory like manufacture paradoxically inspires contemplation on the function and purpose of human life". For his part, Boltanski told Rooksana Hossenally of Forbes magazine "When you are religious, you believe that you can't understand the order but that there is a reason that things happen. And I'm not religious so I don't believe there is a reason; hence why chance has always interested me a lot. Why are we what we are? Everything we are is linked to chance".

Installation - Carriageworks, Sydney

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Christian Boltanski Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 08 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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