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 Christian Boltanski  (1944 - )

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About: Christian Boltanski


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Lived/Active: France      Known for: sculpture-conceptual, photography, installation, painting

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Ad Code: 2
Christian Boltanski
from Auction House Records.
Les Bougies
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Christian Boltanski was born in occupied Paris in 1944 to a Jewish father and a Corsican mother. He is known for a body of work that may be considered a disturbing archive of our social, cultural, ethnic, and personal histories. His death-obsessed creations have earned him an international reputation. He has spent his artistic life working with the most ephemeral of materials -- newspaper clippings, photographs, found snapshots, clothing, candles, light bulbs, old biscuit tins to examine and mark our transitory passing here on earth. Photographs are central to his work, and Boltanski explores the perceived truth of the photograph, how it is often used as a shield against death.

Self-taught, he began painting in 1958, but first came to public attention in the late 1960s with short avant-garde films and with the publication of notebooks in which he came to terms with his Jewish childhood. This focus on real and fictional evidence of his and other people's existence has remained central to his later art.

In the 1970s he experimented with the production of objects made of clay and from unusual materials such as sugar and gauze dressings. These works, some of them entitled 'Attempt at Reconstitution of Objects that Belonged to Christian Boltanski Between 1948 and 1954' (1970-71), again included flashbacks to segments of time and life that blur memory with invention.

It was also in the 1970s when photography became Boltanski's favored medium for exploring forms of remembering and consciousness, reconstructed in pictorial terms. After 1976 he handled the medium as if it were painting, photographing slices of nature and carefully arranged still-lifes of banal everyday objects, converting them into grid compositions that reflected the collective condition of contemporary civilization in a stereotyped way. Using photographs from grade-school portraits, obituaries, tabloids, social clubs, and other common sources, Boltanski noted that the photograph can summon up not only a particular person who may have passed from this earth, but indeed entire groups of people.

In the early 1980s Boltanski ceased using 'objets trouves' as a point of departure. Instead he produced 'theatrical compositions' by fashioning small marionette-like figures from cardboard, scraps of materials, thread and cork, painted in color and transposed photographically into large picture formats. These led to kinetic installations in which a strong light focused on figurative shapes helped create a mysterious environment of silhouettes in movement, as in 'The Shadows' (1984).

In 1998, The Kemper Museum (Missouri) organized an exhibition, 'Christian Boltanski: So Far, February 21 - May 3, 1998', which was comprised of seventeen works divided roughly into three areas: including 'Shadows', 'Monument', and 'Jewish School'. 'Shadows' seems both magical, because they dance, and sinister, because we come to realize that the figures are skeletons and hanged men.

The 'Jewish School of Grosse Hamburgerstrasse in Berlin in 1938' series is made up of photographs taken in 1938 at a Jewish school in Berlin. Many of the photographs show children with bed sheets. The sheets flutter and move, creating a mysterious sense of the living, yet are also hauntingly shroud like, underscoring our hideous suspicion that these children may have become victims of the Holocaust. Boltanski again combines both desire and repulsion within a single work, and demonstrates how art may both enchant and disturb us. Also on view at the Kemper Museum exhibit was the work '20 Dead Swiss', which was gifted to the Kemper Museum by Museum Without Walls, a Kansas City Jewish museum foundation..

The 'Monument' series is pivotal in Boltanski's body of work partly because in 1984 he began to explore his own Jewish heritage, and also explore our personal and cultural ideas of memory, memorials, and monuments. By creating monuments out of ephemeral materials such as photographs, wires, and small naked light bulbs, Boltanski shows us how the concept of monuments, -typically large stone or bronze sculptures whose permanence is an anchor against forgetting the dead, can be subverted yet still hold significant meaning. 'Monument' may be even more meaningful because the delicate materials suggest life's fragility and the lost lives of those who have disappeared from the earth through genocide.

In later works, such as 'Reserve', Boltanski filled whole rooms and corridors with items of worn clothing as a way of prompting an involuntary association with the clothing depots at concentration camps. As in his previous work, objects thus serve as mute testimony to human experience and suffering.

His works are included in collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Missouri; the Mattress Factory, Pennsylvania; the Sintra Museu de Arte Moderna, Portugal.

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