Christian Boltanski was born in Paris in 1944 in the wake of its liberation from Fascist control (he died in Paris in 2021). Perhaps as a result of his childhood experiences, he explored themes of memory, death, and mourning in film, paint, photography, and found objects. Boltanski began exhibiting by presenting inventories and images where the objects on display (photographs, clothing, etc.) give voice to absent subjects and memorialize anonymous individual loss.
“Gymnasium Chases” is part of a series that Boltanski began in 1987, inspired by a found photograph of the 1931 graduating class from a private Jewish high school in Vienna, Austria, prior to Nazi rule. The artist rephotographed, enlarged, and isolated each student’s face, creating images that are balanced between individual and universal traits. The portraits are haunting in their soft-focus. Almost reduced to silhouettes, the group of images, together comprise a moving memorial, a meditation on loss and endurance, and an engagement with the fate of the memory of the dead.
Boltanski wrote, in French, on the cover sheet for the exhibited work:
“They are gathered for the last time. .. What have they become after so many years, what kind of life have they had? One of them recognized himself in this photograph, he escaped the horror and now lives in New York, of the others I know nothing.”
Since his first exhibition in 1968, Boltanski’s work has been shown around the globe. Recent solo shows have been at Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2019); Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, Japan (2019); The National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan and the National Art Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2019); The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2018); The Power Station of Art, Shanghai, China (2018); the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2017); Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Italy (2017); The Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey, Mexico (2016); Instituto Valenciano Arte Moderno (IVAM), Spain (2016); Mac’s Grand Hornu, Belgium (2015); and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile (2014). Boltanski was recognized with several awards over his lifetime, including the Praemium Imperiale Award (2006) and the Kaiser Ring Award (2001). He participated in Documenta (1977 and 1972) and numerous Venice Biennales (2011, 1995, 1993, 1980, and 1975).