Christian Boltanski

The Reserve of Dead Swiss


Not on display

Christian Boltanski born 1944
Original title
La Réserve des Suisses morts
42 photographs on paper, 42 electric lamps, fabric and wood
Maximum possible dimensions: 3120 × 6040 × 4530mm or 3120 × 4530 × 6040mm
Presented by the Fondation Cartier 1992


The Reserve of Dead Swiss is an installation featuring forty-two photographic portraits depicting men, women and children of varying ages. Each photograph is framed, placed on a shelf and positioned so that it leans against the wall behind it. Electric lamps are clipped to the top edge of each frame and bent down to direct their light onto the faces of those portrayed. The photographs are arranged at regular intervals on three rows of shelving, and each row is lined with bunched lengths of light-coloured fabric, some of which is patterned or adorned with embroidery. The simple shelving structures consist of a number of wooden units that are installed on a single wall or wrapped around corners of the space, as determined by the constraints of the gallery environment. The electrical wiring for the spotlights hangs slackly from each clip down onto the floor, trailing over the surface of the image it is connected to as well as over those on lower rows. The work is intended to be installed without additional gallery lighting.

This installation was created by the French artist Christian Boltanski in 1990. The photographs were appropriated by the artist from obituaries published in Le Nouvelliste du Valais, a provincial Swiss newspaper. Boltanski amassed these clippings over several years and selected the portraits at random from his collection. The artist then rephotographed the already grainy images and had enlarged prints produced so that the heads are slightly bigger than life-size. The identity of the subjects is obliterated by the poor quality of the resulting prints and the removal of any accompanying memorial text from the obituary. Regarding his presentation of these individuals, Boltanski stated in 1993: ‘I suppose part of the work is also about the simple fascination of seeing somebody who is handsome and imagining his ashes’ (Boltanski in Rainbird and Boltanski 1993, p.4).

The Reserve of Dead Swiss was constructed in Nagoya, Japan, for a solo exhibition of Boltanski’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Nagoya that took place between September and November 1990. In conversation with curator Sean Rainbird at Tate in 1993 during an installation of this work, Boltanski suggested that it might be considered an assemblage of many elements and tropes from other works (see Rainbird and Boltanski 1993, p.1). The repetitive arrangement of identical elements suggests that the installation could be a part of an almost infinite archive and indeed Boltanski has produced a number of works bearing variations on the same title with many similar components (see, for instance, 364 Dead Swiss 1990, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon).

Boltanski was born to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father in Paris in 1944, shortly after the city was liberated from German occupation during the Second World War. Adopting quasi-archaeological or sociological strategies, his works have often been viewed as investigations into history and memory with explicit reference to the Holocaust. For instance, Boltanski’s Altar to the Chases High School (Autel Chases) 1987 (Jewish Museum, Israel) presents eighteen framed photographs of Jewish students who graduated from a high school in Vienna in 1931, each of which was rephotographed from an image that Boltanski found in the Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckerman’s 1984 book Die Mazzesinsel, a tragic account of Vienna’s Jewish second district between the years 1918 and 1938.

Further reading
Sean Rainbird and Christian Boltanski, ‘Sean Rainbird Talking to Christian Boltanski’, transcript of a conversation held at Tate Gallery, London, 28 January 1993, pp.1–31, Tate Artist Catalogue File, Christian Boltanski, A19617.
Ernst van Alphen, ‘Deadly Historians: Boltanski’s Intervention in Holocaust Historiography’, in Barbie Zelizer (ed.), Visual Culture and the Holocaust, New Brunswick 2000, pp.45–73.
Christian Boltanski, ‘Studio: Christian Boltanski’, Tate Magazine, no.2, December 2002,, accessed 23 November 2013.

Thomas Scutt
August 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

The photographs of anonymous dead people were selected by Boltanski from obituary notices in Swiss newspapers. The lengths of fabric gathered around the shelves are shroud-like and also evoke the curtain of the crematorium. Aside from this suggestion of 'memento mori' the harsh beams that spotlight each face evoke references to interrogation and torture. These aspects together with the sheer scale of death suggested by the title and by the repetitive presentation employed here have led commentators to find references to the holocaust. However by nominating the victims as Swiss, a neutral people, the association is muted and allows for more intimate, personal and wider, historical reflections.

Gallery label, August 2004

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    Christian Boltanski: Talking Art

    French artist Christian Boltanski thinks of himself as a painter but is best known for his photographic installations. A photographer …

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