Agnès Varda has always been a shape-shifter. First a still photographer, she became a filmmaker at age twenty-six, and then, over the past decade and a half, a gallery artist. Her serenely beautiful show at Blum & Poe gallery in New York (through April 15) is a hop-skip-jump retrospective of her photography and gallery art that opens with a series of eighteen vintage silver prints from 1954 and is anchored by three photographic self-portraits. Depicting Varda respectively in her youth, midlife, and old age, they differ in their collage techniques but show her sharp-eyed gaze and Joan of Arc bowl haircut poignantly unchanged over sixty years. Elsewhere in the exhibition, three meditative moving-image installations fulfill her succinct self-description—that she has transformed herself “from an old filmmaker into a young artist.”
Elegantly mounted in small rooms on the two floors of the Blum & Poe space, the show is arranged in a way that accentuates two of Varda’s strengths—her framing of both still and moving images and the intimacy of her work in both mediums. The eighteen early photographs are arranged to replicate her first public exhibition of her work, which she organized by herself in 1954 in the courtyard of the house on the Rue Daguerre where she still lives today. The images are direct and mysterious. Three boys confront the camera, their faces completely covered in animal masks, their bodies swathed in winter coats and scarfs, the bare knees of two of them jutting out, boney and vulnerable between socks and short pants. Alexander Calder, his wife, and their daughters sit on a park bench in Paris, the quartet sullenly staring into the lens as if, having agreed to pose for a family portrait, they suddenly regret spending their time to please their friend Agnès.
Other images in this grouping are just as dramatic and unyielding in their mystery. In Ulysse, a man and young boy, both naked, are captured on a rocky beach. The man has his back to the camera, the boy is half turned looking toward a dead goat in the extreme right foreground of the image. The photo suggests a layering of time: the man exists in the immediate present, the goat might have washed ashore out of the mythological past, the boy is caught uneasily between them. In the more strikingly homoerotic Nus dans les ruines, two naked men are posed on the site of a house that seems to have been abandoned mid-construction. One man is facing away from the camera, his relaxed stance belying the mesmerizing perfection of his back, buttocks, and legs. The other is seated in profile within an empty window frame. What could have been merely an exercise in composition—frames within frames—becomes an invitation to narrative. Are the men construction workers? Did Varda find them on the job? Why are they naked? Do they even know each other? What could be the story behind this photograph?
Some of the photographs were taken in Sète, the beach town in the south of France where Varda lived as a teenager and where she shot her first feature, La Pointe Courte, which was made in 1954, the same year that she mounted the exhibition of these eighteen images. Like the photos, the film was shot in black and white, largely with natural light, the mist and clouds softening the Mediterranean sun. Influenced by Italian neorealism (although Varda claimed that she had seen only ten films in her entire life before she made it), La Pointe Courte was effectively the first feature film of the French New Wave, directed by a novice without any of the trappings—stars, décor—of the studio system. Varda went on to make twenty more feature-length fiction and documentary films and just as many shorts.
In her most recent film, the autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès (2008), she remarks, “If we were to open people up, we would find a landscape. If we were to open me up, we would find beaches.” The settings of two of the three moving installations in this current show reflect her preoccupation with seaside living. Bord de mer (2009) is composed of three kinds of material, seamlessly fused to create the illusion of sitting on a beach. Almost entirely covering one wall is a projection of a still image of ocean waves, its proportions the 16x9 ratio of a widescreen movie. Meeting the still at the bottom of the wall and spilling over onto the floor is a moving image of the edge of those waves lapping the shoreline. And at the edge of that moving image is real sand. A technical tour de force accomplished with economy of means (no CGI involved), the installation reminds the viewer of the contemplative state one sometimes experiences observing the timeless power of the natural world.
Le triptyque de Noirmoutier (2005) was shot on the island of the title, where Varda has a home. The original 35 mm film material may have been intended for a feature film. The central image is a kitchen where two women—perhaps a mother and her adult daughter—are preparing apple tarts. At one point a man enters and sits with them at the table. None of the three speak, and indeed a strong current of repressed anger dominates the scene. The only notable sound is from a cat, which jumps onto the table, where it wanders around before being roughly pushed off. A door from the kitchen leads to a pantry (projected on the right panel) where dishes, probably collected over generations, fill a cabinet. On the left panel, we see the beach just outside the house. At one point, two young boys are glimpsed playing in the sand. The man we’ve seen in the kitchen joins them and, although what happens isn’t clear, an altercation is implied. At another point, the younger of the two women walks alone on the beach. The entire piece lasts just under ten minutes and is exhibited as an endless loop, standing as evidence of a family drama, the specifics of which we project out of our own psyches and perhaps our knowledge of the films of Agnès Varda.
The process of developing a film from a single image is the basis of the whimsical diptych La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956)/Les gens de la terrasse (2012). On the left is a still photo that Varda took in 1956 of vacationing sightseers. On the right panel is the projection of a short movie in which Varda imagines how the people moved about on the terrace to end up in their positions in the photograph. Narrating in voice-over, she explains how she found actors who looked like the actual people, had costumes made, and even laid tracks so that the camera could move smoothly. The piece revivifies a moment in time and history, and makes the passage of fifty-five years evident in small differences of body language and behavior.
Varda’s desire to employ the images she discarded in the past in the creation of new work motivates this piece, as well as two maquettes for the large film “cabanas” that she is continuing to construct. The cabanas have metal frames, but their surfaces are covered with composted celluloid. One uses black-and-white materials from La Pointe Courte, the other color film from Le bonheur (1964). The cabanas are both conceptual and experiential works in that they make concrete the metaphors we use to express our feeling of being drawn into the world of a movie. And they are a form of gleaning, which, as Varda explained in her great documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), is basic to photographic mediums. Only the hand and eye of a dedicated gleaner could have produced the moving and often exquisite work in this show.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Artforum and Film Comment and a writer at 4Columns.org.
All images courtesy of Genevieve Hanson © Agnès Varda Courtesy Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.