Contemporary French artist Christian Boltanski dies at age 76

Christian Boltanski, one of the best contemporary French artists whose multimedia works explored the meaning of mortality and memory, has died aged 76, a former museum director told AFP on Sunday.

“He was ill. He was a private man who kept things hidden for as long as possible,” said Bernard Blistene, former director of the Center Pompidou, which hosted an exhibition of Boltanski’s work last year.

Boltanski, whose death at the Cochin Hospital in Paris was first reported by the newspaper Le Monde, often mixed banal everyday objects with photos, videos and sculptures, while at other times he created monumental installations.

His self-described works of “naive psychoanalysis” include the recorded heartbeats of thousands of people on a remote Japanese island, a moving walkway with pictures of hundreds of children, and stacks of cookie boxes with the names of dead people.

Boltanski made headlines in 2010 when he agreed to offer 24-hour video footage from his Paris studio to an Australian collector for the rest of his life, in exchange for regular payments.

The final price paid by the collector, David Walsh, who made his fortune gambling, was determined by the time Boltanski was alive.

According to the macabre deal, if Boltanksi had lived more than eight years, Walsh would have paid more than they estimated the work was worth.

“He has assured me that I will die before the eight years are up because he never loses. He is probably right,” Boltanski told AFP at the time. ‘I don’t take very good care of myself. But I’m going to try to survive.’

Walsh told The New York Times that he hoped Boltanksi would die in his studio.

Blistene called the artist’s death “a great loss”.

“He especially loved the transmission between people through their stories, their memories. He will remain one of the greatest storytellers of his time. He was an incredible inventor,” he told AFP.

Farewell to the extraordinary artist Christian Boltanski (1944-2021) whose deeply moving work and playful attitude will be sorely missed. I remember seeing his work in @ICALondon in the early 1980s and instantly fell in love with it.

— Robin Rimbaud – Scanner (@robinrimbaud) July 14, 2021

Marked by the Holocaust

Boltanski, the son of a converted Jewish doctor of Ukrainian descent and a Catholic French mother, was born on September 6, 1944, as Europe was reeling from the Nazi holocaust.

During the German occupation of France during World War II, Boltanski’s polio-stricken mother hid his father under the floor of their apartment and pretended the couple had divorced.

Boltanski’s childhood was haunted by stories of family friends who had survived the Holocaust, a theme that would later greatly influence his work.

Raised with the fear of divorce, he slept for years in the same bedroom as his parents with his two brothers.

Describing himself to France Culture as an “extremely strange… very peculiar” child, he left school at the age of 13, unable to express himself.

He found his calling while experimenting with clay and paint and soon began producing huge canvases.

He held his first exhibition in May 1968 at the age of 23, but after creating some 200 works, he left the brush for good and concentrated on new art forms, starting with short films.

Clocking the seconds

In 1968 he published his first book, in which he describes memories of his childhood from 1944 to 1950.

His big international break came in 1971 with the “Album of Family D”, the first in a series of works that used patchworks of photographs of people.

In “Inventory’s” he described the treasure trove hidden in the bottom drawers of anonymous people.

After the death of his parents in the mid-1980s, his work darkened.

In “Personnes” in 2010, he handed visitors to the Grand Palais in Paris large piles of clothes and turned off the heating in the huge building, a meditation on the Nazi death camps.

An exhibition at the Marian Goodman gallery in Paris in 2015 featured hologram images of himself as a young and old man, with the words “arrival” and “departure” illuminated on the walls, as well as a clock showing the number of seconds of his life.

He was married to fellow contemporary artist Annette Messager. The couple decided not to have children.


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