Christian Boltanski b. 1944
Early Films (1969-74)
Christian Boltanski (1994) (dir. Gerald Fox, documentary, 1994)
French sculptor, photographer, painter and film maker. 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 childhood. The combination in these works of real and fictional evidence of his and other people’s existence remained central to his later art. As well as presenting assemblages of documentary photographs wrenched from their original context, in the 1970s he also experimented inventively 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; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 11), again included flashbacks to segments of time and life that blurred memory with invention.
In the 1970s photography became Boltanski’s favoured 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 in order to convert them into grid compositions that reflected the collective aesthetic condition of contemporary civilization in a stereotyped way. In the early 1980s Boltanski ceased using objets trouvés 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 colour 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 (e.g. The Shadows, 1984; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 20).
In 1986 Boltanski began making installations from a variety of materials and media, with light effects as integral components. Some of these consisted of tin boxes stacked in an altar-like construction with a framed portrait photograph on top, for example the Chases School (1986–7; Ghent, Mus. Hedendaag. Kst). Such assemblages of objects again relate to the principle of reconstruction of the past. Such works, for which he used portrait photographs of Jewish schoolchildren taken in Vienna in 1931, serve as a forceful reminder of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. In the works that followed, such as Reserve (exh. Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst, 1989), 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.