On a date in the late 1960s with Annette Messager, the woman who would become his wife, Christian Boltanski wiped off his hands, postdinner, by running them through his hair (much to Messager’s shock). He’d learned the questionable habit from his father, a doctor who believed the practice helped make his hair “beautiful.” The artist’s disclosure comes in one of a series of interviews by curator Catherine Grenier, which she has pieced together to form the absorbing, if flawed, autobiography The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski.
The likable schlemiel is Boltanski’s default persona, and the qualities he exhibits in this story—innocence, filth, and shame—are themes throughout this odd narrative, which opens with anecdotes both amusing (such as the aforementioned hygiene lesson and other recollections of his family’s high tolerance for slovenliness) and awful: His Jewish father hid under the floorboards of the family’s Paris flat for a year and a half during World War II. Boltanksi was born on September 6, 1944, while his father was in hiding (his mother was Catholic, and his parents had divorced to save the family), and he received an early education in the dangers of being Jewish. Perhaps more so than any other living artist, Boltanski is a voice for those who endured the horrors of the Holocaust. His work, which often consists of large-scale installations of faded black-and-white photographs, discarded clothing, bare lightbulbs, and other evocatively decrepit materials, is frequently interpreted as representing the millions killed during the Shoah. Yet this is an association he clearly struggles with; it wasn’t until his father’s death in 1984 that he identified himself as Jewish. “Of course, we knew we were Jews,” he admits to Grenier. “My father’s hiding place was right there in the house—but it wasn’t something we talked about and it filled me with shame. I really only took ownership of it and showed it in my work after my father’s death.”
Though some readers may be surprised by Boltanski’s discomfort with being Jewish—a recurring subject within the book—the dilemma is not unfamiliar: Hannah Arendt wrote about the Jewish literary and artistic tradition of the “pariah,” an archetype who, though apparently free to mingle with society, chooses to show “how treacherous [is] the promise of equality which assimilation has held out.” Boltanski is most comfortable on the margins. When he’s not asserting that his work holds no specifically Jewish content, he’s stricken by the vicissitudes of being an artist (“You’re forever uneasy; it’s pretty disturbing”). Although it’s hard not to empathize with an artist or, for that matter, anyone so willing to acknowledge his own flaws, the waffling becomes a little much to take over the course of two hundred–plus pages.
Such circumspection is a hazard of the interview format, and to her credit, Grenier tries to keep Boltanski on track, repeating questions he seems to have evaded. (According to a prefatory note, Boltanski did not look at the transcripts or finished manuscript.) The artist bravely relates his failed efforts to cater to the market in the early ’80s (“I had this urge . . . to make sellable, framed works. . . . I didn’t know how to do it, and so I had enormous setbacks”) and how true success didn’t arrive for him until his forties, when he gave up on trying to make money and instead went back to his messy, grimy origins, creating deliberately slipshod, ephemeral installations. He repeatedly reminds readers that theory is not his bag and that “the good thing about me . . . is that I am very human,” yet one wishes for a firmer stand on political and religious subjects. But that kind of discourse might require Boltanski to be a different kind of artist, one who feels more at home in this world.