Agnès Varda, the celebrated “grandmother of French New Wave” likes to introduce herself as a potato.
“I see myself as a heart-shaped potato—growing again,” she explained to her fans who gathered at French Institute in New York City on Feb 28. The 88-year old director of such films as Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Gleaners and I, says that like an old potato sprouts new leaves, her recent turn to contemporary art is a kind of creative rebirth.
Born in Brussels, Varda has gone through several reinventions in her life. After changing her name from Arlette to Agnès, Varda moved to Paris at age 20 and worked as a photographer for a theater company. Soon after, she shifted her focus to film—writing, directing, and acting in a string of well-received movies, all without any formal training. Exhibiting at the 2003 Venice Biennale marked the beginning of her “third career,” as Varda describes it. She created an immersive gallery, and made Patatutopia, a short film and creative manifesto about her beloved tubers, the centerpiece.
“I have a formula. I switch from old female to young visual artist,” Varda joked. “People like definitions, and I like to feel that I’m everything.”
Her first solo exhibition in New York is not at MoMA or at the Guggenheim, but rather at Blum & Poe’s elegant but rather small townhouse gallery on the Upper East Side. But Varda isn’t complaining about her newbie status in the art world. Responding to a question from a Columbia University film student, Varda cautioned about using status, age or gender as crutches. “I started my story as a filmmaker, not as a woman…Young women would come to me and say they can’t make a film because it’s difficult for a woman. [To that] I say, ‘go back to the kitchen’.”
This may be a strange statement coming from the ardent feminist who signed Simone de Beauvoir’s Manifeste des 343 to campaign for legalized abortion in France in the 1970s. But Varda insists that when it comes to art, the competition for audiences and funding is a universal struggle. “It’s true that it’s difficult for women in the world, but everything is difficult for a filmmaker,” she says.
“I fight for women’s rights, like being paid the same or getting the same chances. For that, I fight like a tiger—but not as a woman filmmaker” she later explained to Quartz. “Filmmaking is a fight in itself,” mused Varda, explaining that she still struggles with fundraising for her films, despite her stature.
“It’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because I make films that are not easy to sell.”
Beyond the screen
Like her 2008 César Award-winning film, Beaches of Agnès, much of Varda’s art is self-referential and teems with the kind of strange, intellectual pleasure that lingers in one’s mind days after leaving the show.
Visual art, Varda explains, frees her from the confines of a movie screen to explore curiosities via three-dimensional objects and immersive installations. For instance, in a work called Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, Varda projects a film sequence in the center frame showing three people sitting around a kitchen table, like a live Flemish painting. As each actor gets up and exits the frame, a leaf of the triptych opens to reveal where that character travels to.
In La terrasse du Corbusier, Varda takes an old photograph she took in Marseille in 1957 and writes a fictional screenplay, fleshing out the backstory for each person in the snapshot. The three-minute film ends with a freeze frame replicating the original photograph.
In the room-sized installation Bord de Mer, Varda brings the audience to her favorite beach. A large, photographic mural shows the water, a film sequence represents waves lapping on the beach, and the work tapers to a patch of real sand extending to the middle of the gallery.
At the March 2 preview, Varda slipped into her directorial mode and requested tweaks to the lighting, noting that the sand was perhaps imperceptible in shadows. When the gallery assistant explained that they’d need more time to fiddle with the technology, Varda reached for her iPhone and deployed the flashlight feature to light the sand for the audience. “It’s like editing,” she smiles. “You can make it better and better.”
Varda’s New York artistic debut coincides with a weekly film showing at the French Institute, Agnès Varda: Life As Art, through March 21. Her exhibition at Blum & Poe closes on April 15.