By her own calculation, Agnès Varda has had three lives, each corresponding to different parts of her career. “I have been a photographer, then I turned into a filmmaker, then I turned into a visual artist,” she told me earlier this month, adding that she didn’t need anyone’s approval to keep changing. “I gave myself the right to become a visual artist.”
Though canonized in the history of cinema, Varda’s work including installations, sculptures, and photography has been little-seen in New York. But now on view at the Upper East Side gallery Blum & Poe is the French New Wave filmmaker’s first-ever New York solo show: a survey of five decades of art from Henri Cartier-Bresson–like photographs from the 1950s to video installations from the 21st century.
When Varda and I spoke at the beginning of March in the gallery’s back room, I was warned that she might be tired and might not have much time, but the 88-year-old artist seemed happy to be there for the opening of her exhibition, which runs through April 15. By her own admission, she is a “talkative person.” She wears her dyed red hair with a skullcap-like circle of white at the top and chats vivaciously.
In the show, Varda reflects on her past work, often re-staging old photographs and playfully messing with the boundaries between film and reality. “What is time? What is memory? What is imagination? What is one picture?” Varda asked, rhetorically. “Images are so important in my life and in everybody’s life. Imagination nourishes our look at an image. One picture doesn’t exist if no one looks at it.”
She explained that she had been keeping tabs on the art world for many decades. Since she was 18, Varda studied modern art—“Braque, Picasso, Rouault, all these people,” she said. And she was there during the ’50s and ’60s when artists throughout France drastically broke away from the oil-on-canvas formula. She recalled Nam June Paik’s early experiments with video, which excited her because they were, in her estimation, “very new.”
Around that time, she garnered critical acclaim for her film Cléo from 5 to 7, a masterpiece about a Parisian woman who awaits news about a biopsy. Will those results include news that she has cancer? For 90 minutes, the film follows Cléo in real time, observing her as she frets about the results and her own mortality. But, like most Varda productions, it has a light touch—there are musical numbers and a subplot involving a budding romance.
“I’ve always been trying to make work without the truth of cinema,” Varda said. Film is “obviously image and sound, but also time. You can feel the time—90 minutes to 90 minutes. But you can’t tell a story over ten years and make it under two hours!” Her feature films, which have earned top honors at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals, reflect on time, the slippery divide between fiction and reality, and film itself.
Though she didn’t make her first art-world appearance until 2003, dressed as a potato at the Venice Biennale, Varda began her career as a photographer in the ’50s. Some of her early photographs draw influence from Magnum, creating striking black-and-white tableaux composed along sharp diagonals. In one, a nude man stares at the ocean while a boy stares at a dead goat that has tumbled down a cliff and fallen on the beach next to them.
Varda recalled saying to herself, in 1982, when she looked back on the photograph, “I have to question that image.” She made a film called Ulysse that imagined what would have led to that picture—a technique she used again for a 1956 photograph of people in Marseilles that appears in the Blum & Poe show. For a 2008 film, Varda carefully restaged the old photograph, offering a brief narrative for the picture’s protagonists: a couple holding a baby, a woman taking their picture, and two people observing the landscape. “In a way, my question was, ‘Did they put themselves in the mise-en-scène?’ ” she said. “But it was chance—chance put them there at the right moment to take the picture.”
Varda’s cinematic imagination has remained, so a few works revel in the childlike glee that sometimes accompanies filmmaking. Two miniature sculptures in the show take the form of a shipwreck and a shack, their walls formed by strips of celluloid prints of Varda’s first two feature films, La Pointe Courte and Le Bonheur. What, she wondered, would happen to her films when they went unused? “I’m not the one who decided you can no longer screen films,” she said. “I spent my life with 35mm, then 16mm, then video—I did everything. But what do we do with all that equipment, all that material?” It’s also a way of reflecting on her filmography. “I’m not living in the past, but I’m reviving it and reinventing reality,” she said.
So why not create a work in which fantasies become reality? That was the thinking behind Bord de Mer, a 2009 installation that recreates a seascape. It’s one-third still photograph, one-third looped video of crashing waves, and one-third real sand—all displayed on the floor and a wall. Asked about the work, Varda responded, as she often does, with questions: “How can we bring such a strong of feeling of the seaside, which has sky, ocean, and earth—the three elements of the Earth? And how can we make it in a real room, with one photo becoming cinema becoming sand? Are these elements enough to make you feel like you know the seaside—to make you feel like you’re there?” (She noted that one thing is missing: people playing games. “I hate sports, so no swimming, no sailing!”)
Standing in front of the work can be a hypnotic experience. Although the video and its soundtrack are looped, the work seems to go on forever. Yet it’s just two images—one moving, one still—and some sand. It isn’t a beach, but because of the play between real and reel worlds, it certainly feels like one. “I give myself a structure,” Varda said, “and I allow my mind to go elsewhere.”