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Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

MoMA Does The 1960s – March 26, 2016 – March 12, 2017

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Andy Warhol, Philip Fagan (left) and Gerard Malanga (right) at Warhol’s factory, New York City, 1964.

The 1960s was one of the most adventurous and optimistic eras in American, and indeed world culture, and now The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is mounting a new exhibition of some key works from the period, running for nearly a full year until March 12, 2017 – coincidentally, my next birthday. As the museum’s website for the exhibition notes, “with From the Collection: 1960–1969, MoMA reinstalls its fourth-floor collection galleries with works from all six of its curatorial departments. The presentation is organized through the lens of the 1960s, when interdisciplinary artistic experimentation flourished and traditional mediums were radically transformed.

Artistic change paralleled sociopolitical upheaval around the globe, and these seismic shifts reach to the present moment. The galleries feature works across mediums, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, architecture, design objects, videos, films, and archival materials. The presentation will undergo periodic reinstallations over the course of the year, reflecting the depth and richness of the Museum’s collection and the view that there are countless ways to explore the history of modern art.

The installation includes a range of works from the 1960s, including a Jaguar E-Type Roadster (1961), a selection from Bela Kolárová’s photographic body of work Radiogram of Circle (1962–63), Nam June Paik’s Zen for TV (1963), James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65), Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue (1964-65), Robert Smithson’s drawing A Heap of Language (1966), Bonnie Maclean’s poster for the Yardbirds and the Doors (1967), Eva Hesse’s Repetition Nineteen (1968), a group of works related to Superstudio’s The Continuous Monument: New York Extrusion Project, New York, New York(1969), and Nalini Malani’s film Dream Houses (1969), among many others.

Each gallery is dedicated to works from a single year, and the galleries proceed in chronological order. This approach provides a framework for displaying a wide-ranging selection of objects from the Museum’s collection, offering visitors a rare opportunity to see an automobile in proximity to an oil painting, an etching juxtaposed with an architectural model, or a film alongside a sculpture. The organizational principles vary throughout: some galleries explore the potential of unexpected connections across mediums and genres while others gather works that are similar in materials or function.”

This, like so many shows at MoMA, is not to be missed.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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