Category Archives: Christian Boltanski

Research : Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski b1944 France

I never take photographs myself . I don’t feel like a photographer , more like a recycler . When we look at a photo we always believe that it’s real ; its not real but it has a close connection with reality. If you paint a portrait , that connection is not so close. With a photo you really feel the people were ‘there‘ .
Christian Boltanski
( Semin et al ,1997, p.g 25).

Boltanski was born after the Holocaust and his work explores the gap between memory and postmemory. His mother was a Catholic and his father a Jew , who despite converting to Catholicism was kept hidden under the floorboards of his Paris home during the occupation . He left school at 11 and began to paint , he describes his childhood self as “a little crazy” and “strange” . He never left the family home on his own until aged 18. His work explores loss and death , Marianne Hirsch suggests ‘his paternal history has no doubt determined the shape of his avant-garde photographic career’ (Hirsch, 2012, p.g257) . Yet Boltanski states “there is nothing personal in my work. Ever.” ( Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 27) and maintains his art says something about life , but nothing about himself , his personal life an enigma.

Boltanski searches flea markets and lost property offices for small objects , clothing , magazines , letters , albums and photographs. He re-photographs and deconstructs found images to create new works. The context of the original photographs remain unknown, there is an ambiguity in his instillations and his work demonstrates the disconnection between ‘truth’ and photography. In an interview with Boltanski Rose Jennings of Magazine conjectures his instillations are about the absence of memory.

Martha Langford describes the instillations as ‘fictional biographical reconstructions based on the artist’s hypotheses and deductions from the images’ ( Langford , p.g 32 ,2008). The instillations are frangible , Boltanski states “around half the work I do is destroyed after each show , but the show can always be done again” (Semin et al , 1997, p.g 17) . He believes we forget why monuments have been initially erected if they are permanent . In order to keep remembering they need to be constantly re-constucted.

In Boltanski’s early work he says he “pretended to speak about his childhood , yet my real childhood had disappeared . I have lied about it so often that I no longer have a real memory of this time , and my childhood has become , for me some kind of universal childhood , not a real one” ( Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 8 ) . This ‘early work … devoted to uncoupling any uncomplicated connection between photography and “truth” ‘ (Hirsch , 2012 ,p.g 257) .

10 Photographic Portraits of Christian Boltanski , 1946-1964

The 10 images , all taken under similar circumstances, are purportedly of Boltanski growing up but not all , if any , are of him , we can only surmise . They are intentionally ambiguous and re-invent his childhood as each is captioned with false information altering the context . His work challenges the notion of truth because ‘none of the 10 Photographic Portraits of Christian Boltanski , 1946-1964 is , strictly speaking , falsified :it is the caption that brings it into the field of a lie’ (Semin et al 1997, p.g 86) .

Album de photos de la famille D, 1939-64

Using photographs from the personal albums of Michel Durand-Dessert Boltanski created a new instillation consisting of 150 black and white photographs dating from 1939 to 1964 . Re-shooting the images and arranging them in what he considered a chronological order ‘using what he called an ethnological approach’ ( Perloff , 2003,p.g 32) Boltanski’s work forms a 25 year study of a ‘family’ , albeit a subverted family album.

The re-constructed album cannot tell us anything about the Duand-Dessert family yet despite being viewed out of context Boltanski believes because we can identify with the notion of the family album , it is a ‘collective ritual’ (Perloff , p.g 32) we understand , we are able to “return to our own memories” . Questions may then be formed about the images themselves , what happened to these people? Marianne Hirsch suggests they form ‘a communal memorial layer , unconscious reminiscences and archetypes through which viewers can supply their own stories as they look at his images’ ( Hirsch , p.g 258) .


Using photographs found in Berlin flea markets Boltanski formed a book consisting of 56 black & white photographs . It was designed to look like a normal family photo album yet the ‘family’ members of this constructed album were strangers challenging traditional perception of family photography , ‘Boltanski’s interest in the material resides in its cultural codes’ (Langford , 2008 ,p.g 33) .

In a later instillation , Archives , he mixed images of Jews and Nazi’s , making it impossible to differentiate between victim and perpetrator suggesting the ambivalent nature of what it means to be human , that we are all capable of criminal behaviour. It is possible to be both nice and a monster. What does this suggest about the ‘truth’ of photographs?

Discussing the work Boltanski says “it’s a book with no text , but if you ‘read it’ , it leaves you with a question. Perhaps this is the question about whether one is guilty or not. About being a victim or criminal –or both. But not necessarily about the Holocaust” ( Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 23) .

Hirsch comments ‘in Boltanski’s work the indexical nature of the photograph is in itself a trace as he succeeds in disguising the arbitrary connection between image and referent . Many of his images are , in fact, icons masquerading as indices , or more radically symbols masquerading as icons and indices’ (Hirsch, 2012, p.g 257 )

Menschlich (Humans)

His 1995 instillation parodied The Family of Man

The instillation consisted of 1300 photographs previously used by Boltanski in earlier work which he says includes ” Nazis , Spanish Killers , French victims, Jewish people , etc. I mixed all of them : they no longer had identities. The show was called Menschlich (Humanity) , because the only thing we can say about these people is that they were human. But we can’t judge whether they were good or bad” ( Semin et al , 1997, p.g 26) .

The images were unaesthetic , printed on cheap paper and Boltanski frequently made use of ‘ identity and newspaper photographs that frustrate the viewer’s desire for recognition’ ( Hirsch , 2012 , p.g 71) .
The instillation challenges the notion that photographs alone can ‘make for us the discriminations we might like to make’ (Hirsch , 2012 , p.g 71) .

A series of instillations entitled
Lessons of Darkness
Altar to Chases High School

Boltanski created an instillation from a 1931 class picture of Jewish children at their Viennese high school . Knowing the probable inevitable fate of these children makes this is a particularly poignant instillation yet Boltanski maintains ” my work is about the fact of dying , but it’s not about the Holocaust itself” ( Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 22) . However ‘taken two years before Hitler came to power , we are left to speculate what became of the young men and women shown in this ghostly out-of-focus manner , in a profound demonstration of photography’s elegiac qualities’ ( Badger , 2001, p.g 169)

Re-photographing the children’s faces Boltanski enlarged each individual image , making them unrecognisable , he positioned the new image ‘on top of tin biscuit boxes or mounted them on the wall , illuminating each with a black desk lamp creating a large circle of light at the centre of each picture’ ( Hirsch , 2012 , p.g 260) .The enlarged images look skeletal , Boltanski describes them to Melvyn Bragg in a South Bank Show interview as being “happy faces but inside skeleton” , their fate already written in their youthful faces , to demonstrate how “photography can deceive , manipulate” .

The biscuit tins intrigued me , in an interview with Tamar Garb Boltanski explains “I always try to use forms that people recognise . Take the biscuit tins for example. I use them because I know that people of my generation can recognise them . We have all kept our small treasures in biscuit tins. It also reminds some people of the metal urns where ashes are kept. I suppose I want my art to be more about recognition than discovery” ( Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 24) .

Another fascinating bit of information about the biscuit tins made me smile:
I’ve used a lot of biscuit tins in my work , and in the beginning they were more personal somehow because I peed on them to make them rust. But I was using so many boxes that I couldn’t do this any more , so I started using Coca Cola to rust them. They were easily replaceable and easily rustable. I remember I exhibited them in Hamburg and in Oslo . The piece was sent there , each box wrapped in tissue paper , and when they arrived the curator demanded that all the workers wear white gloves. It was ridiculous because of course the gloves became red in minutes . And the biscuit tins aren’t precious
Christian Boltanski
(Semin et al , 1997 , p.g 17) .

Boltanski explores the tenuous link between truth , memory and photography.
I have enjoyed researching his artwork very much and there much more that I have not had time to follow up and write about . I believe there are elements of his practice that I might be able to draw on for my 5th assignment so will continue with my research into his work—I will not be peeing on biscuit tins though !

References / Bibliography
Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.
Hirsch, M. (2012) Family frames: Photography, narrative, and postmemory. Cambridge, MA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Langford, M. (2008) Suspended conversations: The afterlife of memory in photographic albums. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Perloff , M. What has occurred only once. (2003) In Wells, L. (ed.) The photography reader. New York: London Routledge, 2003.
Semin, D., Garb, T., Kuspit, D. and Boltanski, C. (1997) Christian Boltanski. London: Phaidon Press.
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