Memory and death: an analysis of Christian Boltanski’s art

MacMichael, Kristine Alyce (2021). Memory and death: an analysis of Christian Boltanski’s art. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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The current interpretation of Christian Boltanski’s artwork understands it as a metaphor for the Holocaust. Writers who pursue this interpretation conclude that the main drivers of meaning behind his work are found in the identity of the subjects, seen as Jewish Holocaust victims, and Boltanski’s own Jewish background. But these interpretations neglect to take into account that Boltanski’s work openly invites a collaboration with each viewer to resuscitate forgotten childhood memories and seeks to inspire personal reflection on the lost past and existential death. Building on the main themes in Boltanski’s art, this thesis asks who determines meaning in Boltanski’s art and on what basis.

An in-depth textual study of the existing literature surrounding Boltanski’s work, close visual analysis of his and other artists’ works, and the application of relevant theoretical concepts come together to contribute significant new and previously underdeveloped ideas in the discourse surrounding Boltanski’s art. This thesis argues that Boltanski deliberately employs various cognitive strategies and visual devices to entice the viewer into an empathic engagement with his works. They are found in the recognisable yet ambiguous images and artefacts that represent generic, everyday, shared memories that were seemingly pulled from an unknowable yet real person in the past who is now forgotten or dead. Since the subject cannot be identified, the viewer internalises the familiar images and determines the meaning of Boltanski’s work based on similar yet personal memories from his or her own past. On this basis, it is argued that Boltanski’s artwork readily absorb polysemic interpretations because meaning is determined by the recuperated memories retrieved from each viewer’s own background and past experiences.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR


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