Biography of Christian Boltanski
Christian Liberté Boltanski was born in 1944, ten days after the liberation of Paris (hence his middle name). His Corsican Catholic mother, Myriam (nee Marie-Elise Ilari-Guérin), was a left-wing novelist; his Jewish Ukrainian father, Etienne, a highly regarded doctor. During the occupation Boltanski's parents lived in constant terror of Nazi persecution. The couple staged a sham divorce in 1942 with Etienne purportedly fleeing to the southern French partition known as zone libre. In fact, Etienne spent 18 months hidden in a secret compartment between two floors of the large family house, only emerging at night-time to share his wife's bed. When she fell pregnant, Myriam was forced to go to great lengths to conceal her condition. As Boltanski explained: "My parents had many reasons to abort me because at that time they had divorced [...] Everybody knew my mother was alone because my father remained hidden under the floor for a year and a half. So, how could she explain her pregnancy?".
Boltanski grew up under dual cultures: Christian and Jewish. He recalled, "I was baptized, and when I was young I used to go to church. However, the Jewish side was much stronger and influential, and I felt linked to the Shoah [Holocaust, in Hebrew]. I heard many stories from survivors - my father was even one of them. Our house was his refuge and my family lived in distress; my father never went out alone [after the war]. We had this idea of extreme and constant danger [...] The Jewish side hasn't influenced me though, or at least not directly, but the ideas of Evil and Chance did. Survivors always posed this question: "Why did I survive? And how?" They were almost ashamed to be survivors".
In 2015 Boltanski's nephew, Christophe, published a memoir in which he described the plush Boltanski house, which was situated on the affluent rue de Grenelle, as "a palace" in which the family "lived like tramps". Boltanski and his brothers, Luc and Jean-Elie, stopped attending school and "were kept at home by a fearful and possessive mother who forbade the visits of friends". He added that the siblings even "slept at the foot of their parents' bed until they were in their teens".
Once Boltanski stopped going to school, he announced he wanted to become a painter. "I was lucky because my parents understood", he said. He spent the remainder of his adolescence at home making art in his room while his older brother, Jean-Elie (a future professor of linguistics), taught him to speak English. Boltanski said of his first paintings: "When [Jean-Elie] wanted to move into the room where we kept the paintings [he] asked me what to do with them and I told him to just throw them away [...] for me painting was just a way to survive". Boltanski added that at this point he was only painting "two types of subjects: the massacre of the innocents and the Turkish entering the city of Van, which is another massacre. I was only painting scenes of massacres, which is also something that hasn't changed much. They were naïve and violent, with blood everywhere".
Early Training and Work
Boltanski was self-taught and cites Goya, the Old Masters, and Art Brut (and other naïve painting) as his chief influences. His mother's friend had told her bluntly that her son's paintings were terrible and suggested that they jointly open an art gallery (which they did) so at least Christian "will learn something". He recalled, "I started to work in this horrible gallery, through which I met many artists. Very quickly I started to gain power in the gallery, doing different things like life-size expressionist dolls made out of fabric. Then I started to make films with the dolls and at some point I started to grow up".
His first solo exhibition, La Vie Impossible de Christian Boltanski (The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski) was held in 1968 at the Théâtre du Ranelagh in Paris and it represented Boltanski's first attempts to tackle what would become a recurring theme of life and lost memories. It was also an attempt to create an aura of mystery and doubt around the identity of the artist himself. In respect of the latter, the public "performances" of Joseph Beuys had proved inspirational, particularly in the way the German had constructed an artistic persona that blurred the lines between myth and reality.
It was towards the end of the 1960s that Boltanski publicly declared "my childhood has ended". A time of great transformation (and anxiety) for Boltanski, he began work on his book, Recherche et présentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1944-1950 (Research and presentation of all that remains of my childhood 1944-1950) (1969). Carrying forward the themes of La Vie Impossible de Christian Boltanski, the book amounts to a montage of photocopies of anything ranging from a class photograph, a piece of sweater and a shirt, and an early reading book and a photograph of his bed. The book might have been a way of preserving the artist's own childhood memories, but Boltanski was equally interested in collective memory and so the everyday objects he presented may, or may not, have been personal relics from his own childhood.
In 1971 Boltanski produced his installation, L' Album de la famille D. 1939-1964 of which he stated: "D. stands for Durant - the most common family name in France - and the family in the album is common, middle class. The photo album is a social repertoire in which the same images, depicting special moments, are repeated over and over again - feeding the newborn, building the house, Christmas. The most common thing is also the most universal [...] L'Album de la famille D. or any photo album is something that resembles us. I couldn't use my own childhood because it was too strange and exceptional, so I used the one of my friend Michel Durant who had the most common childhood you can image".
In 1972 he was invited by the curator Harald Szeemann to exhibit at the celebrated Documenta V quinquennial in Kassel, Germany. It proved to be the turning point in his career, bringing him his first taste of international recognition. It led to a highly prolific and productive period for Boltanski. His stature within the French avant-garde (though he once said that "I feel more like a central European artist. As an artist I have no country") bloomed as he would rub shoulders with Paris based artists including Annette Messager, Gina Pane, Sarkis, Jean Le Gac, and Paul-Armand Gette, all of whom were, like him, exploring the theme of personal myth making.
Boltanski and Messager fell in love and later moved together to Malakoff in the southwest suburb of Paris. The couple only rarely collaborated but shortly after they met, they made The Honeymoon (Le Voyage de Noces) together in 1975. It was a mural installation evoking a shared personal memory through twenty-one drawings and eighty-six color photographs. Having agreed to remain childless, they stayed together until Boltanski's death.
Later in the 1970s Boltanski abandoned his penchant self-mythologising, moving instead towards broader, more universal themes. Photography became his dominant mode of practice and he was fascinated by the way a mechanically produced picture could create a distance between the viewer and the real object, a process he described as a "cooling-off" period. He observed, "objects are in the intimate, touchable realm: photographs in the realm of representation". Andy Warhol's factory approach to making art provided a strong influence, too; especially the way a photograph could flatten and depersonalise a disturbing or distressing subject.
By the 1980s Boltanski's work had become much less autobiographical and more attuned to the lives of others. He began creating the complex and narrative-rich installations that would gain him international renown. Found objects and archival photographs, loaded with historical significance, were a central component in many of his most celebrated installations of the era. These items were carefully chosen for their haunting, atmospheric qualities, sometimes arranged into altar-like grids, and lit with small lamps resembling devotional candles. Most of his installations addressed themes related to human memory, trauma, and suffering, particularly during the Holocaust and thereby placing Boltanski's own family history in the bigger social context. This combination of Minimalist structure and historically rich content earned Boltanski a reputation as a leader in Conceptual Art and Post-Minimalism, placing him next to artists such as Rebecca Horn and Mona Hatoum.
In the haunting, Altar to Chases High School (1988), Boltanski arranges photographs and rusted old biscuit tins into the formation of a religious altarpiece. The spiritual quality was reinforced using small lamps which glow like candles, illuminating the faces of the anonymous figures. The portraits are black and white enlargements from smaller photographs, making them blurred and indistinct; spectre-like relics returning from the past. Boltanski made this installation as a memorial to students from the Viennese Chases High School for Jewish students. The faces are taken from a real photograph of the 1931 graduating class that Boltanski found in the Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckerman's 1984 book Die Mazzesinsel, which described Vienna's Jewish second district between the years 1918 and 1938. Art critic Lynn Gumpert calls this subtle celebration of life and its inherent impermanence a "terrible gentleness", while art critic Adrian Searle says of Boltanski, "He deals in traces rather than ghosts, with shadows and lists [...] His art, ultimately, is a memorial to nothing, to everyone and no one".
In 1988 Boltanski gave an interview in Bomb Magazine to writer and dance ethnologist Irene Borger in lieu of his exhibition, The Temporary Contemporary, in Los Angeles's "cathedral like" Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). He spoke to Borger about his fears that "the Jews, like the American Indians, were dying out" and that his Hasidic installation "took on the look of a museum of an extinct race, a shamanic and sinister version of the Calder Circus" (a reference to American sculptor/performance artist Alexander Calder's Circus performance of the late 1920s that featured a collection of miniatures which he operated by pullies and springs). He said of the installation: "The pieces do have a function. A good piece of art must be something very open - that's why it's so difficult to speak about art. The work of art is something that stimulates memory. You look at it and you remember something else".
That same year, the artist also incorporated many images from his first installation, La Vie Impossible de Christian Boltanski into a monumental project called Les Archives de CB 1965-1988. The art critic Charles Darwent called it "an enterprise of such epic vastness - there were by now well over 2,000 individual items of ephemera in the artist's collection - that it begged the question of how, or indeed whether, it could be viewed. Boltanski seemed to be drawing on the double meaning of the word "enormity", capable, in French as in English, of expressing both great size and great horror".
In 1990, Boltanski produced one of his best-known pieces, The Reserve of Dead Swiss. It featured a montage of cropped photographs taken from the death notices in a provincial Swiss newspaper called Le Nouvelliste du Valais. He enlarged 42 portraits, to the point that the faces became obscure, and then illuminated each with a single electric bulb. He said of the piece, "I suppose part of the work is also about the simple fascination of seeing somebody who is handsome and imagining his ashes".
Boltanski, Messager, and their friend Sophie Calle shared a studio in the Parisian suburb of Malakoff where each worked individually to produce art that established them as leading lights on the Parisian art scene. While they developed their own different styles, Boltanski and Messager did come together for one of their few collaborations, Le Grenier de Chateau (The Castle Attic) - consisting of 12 rows of sheets hanging on lines, covering the entire 200 m² of the castle's top floor attic gallery space - at the Rochechouart Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.
The museum described how the installation "evokes the attics of yesteryear where clothes were dried and children's favorite playground. On these sheets [...] Messager pinned small black and white photographs of body fragments, naive drawings, embroidered words like uncertainties and jealousy, painted with blood ghostly and fairy figures [while] Boltanski hung some clothes and designed the showcase of the exhibition" resulting in a work that, when taken as a whole, offered "a captivating crossing of the stages of life".
During the 2000s, Boltanski designed several monumental installations. In 2005, he began his collection of recordings of heartbeats which he gathered from across the world. It was a utopian concept designed to capture and preserve "the heartbeat of humankind". From July 2010, Les Archives du cœur (the heart archives), where the name of each individual registered next to the individual recording, has been curated by a private collector and housed on the island of Teshima, in the Sea of Japan, where it is on display to the public.
In January 2010 Boltanski, who was now 64 years of age, made headlines when he "sold the remainder of his life" to the wealthy Australian gambler and art collector David Walsh. They agreed that Walsh would install four cameras in Boltanski's Paris studio, and the footage, titled The Life of C.B., would then be projected live into a cave on Walsh's property. Under the terms of their contract, the Australian would pay the Frenchman for the exclusive right to film him 24 hours a day for the rest of his life. The live footage would be projected in Walsh's cave-gallery, the Museum of Old and New, in Hobart, Tasmania. Commenting on the fact that he was more often away from the studio than in it, and, indeed, that there was rarely anything to see in any case because he worked mostly on a computer, Boltanski stated: "you don't have to go to Tasmania to see the artwork because there's nothing to see. What is important is to know that the piece exists. That's what I mean when I say that I create a legend. It's not about the object it's about being aware of its existence".
Also in 2010, he produced the installation Personnes (People) (or "person" or "nobody" in French) which opened at the Grand Palais before transferring to the Park Avenue Armory in New York where it was retitled No Man's Land. The installation used a 60ft crane that dropped items of discarded clothing into a huge mound accompanied by the sound of 75,000 beating hearts. For many, the piece inferred the idea of extinction and that these rags represented all that was left behind by those who perished at the Nazi concentration camps.
Between 2010-15, he completed projects in several South American countries, including Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. In 2014 he produced his outdoor installation, Animitas (Little Souls), in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a site thought to have the lowest level of light pollution in the world. The work was made up of 800 tiny Japanese bells that represented the configuration of the sky on the date of his birth (September 6, 1944). When moved by the breeze, the bells gently tolled evoking what Boltanski called "the music of the spheres and the voices of drifting souls". Boltanski said of the piece: "I chose to call the installation Animitas, which refers to the altars that native Indians put on the side of the roads to honor the dead. I think we are surrounded by ghosts, and they are materialized by these bells. It is indeed the music of the sky. I was interested in making something rudimentary in this place [...] I wanted to find the simplicity, the softness of the sound of a small bell".
In January 2021 (shortly after his career retrospective at Centre Pompidou) Boltanski exhibited (also at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris) an installation called Après (Afterwards). It introduced a video installation and a series of new sculptures which Boltanski titled, Les Linges (The Linens). He was reinterpreting the themes that had guided him throughout his career, only this time, in response to the global pandemic. Les Linges comprised stacks of clinical white cloths placed on trolleys which spectators walked between. The journal ArtReview wrote: "Refraining from addressing the pandemic directly [...] Boltanski successfully absorbs it into his material vocabulary and sweeping approach to trauma and history. Present time is subsumed into the last century of horrors that forms his central concern. Plus, during the pandemic, ordinary mourning rituals were prohibited in many countries and funeral ceremonies were banned. Many were forced to say goodbye to their loved ones on a video call. It feels important to linger among Boltanski's strange, disquieting memorials".
In his obituary for Boltanski, Darwent noted that when accepting the commission for his famous live video feed project, The Life of C.B., his patron David Walsh agreed to pay Boltanski in monthly instalments. The two men joked that on Boltanski's current commission rates it would take eight years for the artist to "break even". Since Walsh had made his millions as a gambler, he wagered that the artist would die before then because Walsh "never loses" (a bet). Boltanski told Walsh he was probably right since he "didn't look after [himself] very well". Darwent concluded his eulogy by making the wry observation that when he died in July 2021 Boltanski, by then some "four years to the good" on their deal, had long since won the bet.
The Legacy of Christian Boltanski
Boltanski's place in the evolution of Conceptual Art and Post-Minimalism has influenced a range of artists. The notion that objects and mementoes carry great personal and historical significance was developed for instance by the German conceptual artist, Rebecca Horn, who has arranged inanimate items including pianos, violins, and ladders in such a way to invoke the horrors of suffering and war. Similarly, British artist Cornelia Parker plays with the way ordinary household ephemera can become "imaginative currency" through various acts of destruction including burning, squashing and exploding.
Various artists associated with the Young British Artists movement have carried forward the influence of Boltanski, most notably Rachel Whiteread who, like Boltanski, is fascinated by ghostly relics and the invocation of collective memory. Her haunting and silent Holocaust memorial is a stark reminder of how easily individual lives and stories are lost through the horrors of war. Damien Hirst also explored the precarious balance between life and death by suspending animals in formaldehyde or arranging brightly coloured pills and potions into sensuously appealing, almost spiritual arrangements to emphasise the hope we invest in their life-saving potential. Meanwhile, Boltanski's appropriation of found photography chimed with the Pictures Generation in the United States including artists Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger. More recently, British artist John Stezaker splices apart old photographs and, like Boltanski, invests in them a surreal and magical quality.
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 08 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly