Agnès Varda, artist and key figure of French new wave cinema, died last night at age 90, due to complications from cancer. Known as the “grandmother of Nouvelle Vague,” Varda remained an active filmmaker into the last years of her life, earning an Oscar nomination just last year for the off-beat documentary she co-directed with the famed street artist JR.
With her iconic hairdo—a bowl cut that was half-dyed red—and unique sense of style, Varda was a captivating personality and known to have an eternally youthful spirit. Born Arlette Varda in Belgium in 1928, she changed her name to Agnès around the time she moved to France at 18, where she eventually studied art history at the École du Louvre, and then photography at the École des Beaux-Arts.
A vital player in the development of the French New Wave, Varda’s breakout 1955 film La Pointe Courte released five years earlier than Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic work Breathless, catapulting her into a scene with peers like Godard, Francois Truffaut, and other important figures of the movement. She made more than 30 films during her lifetime, including 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, a milestone of the new wave that cemented her career.
In 1985, her film Vagabond won a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. The legendary director was also a vocal feminist, and was one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343,” in the early 1970s, a document signed by 343 women admitting they had an illegal abortion, and demanding abortion rights in France.
While she was celebrated as a filmmaker, Varda was also an accomplished photographer and artist, who maintained a fluid connection between the three aspects of her creative practice. Incredibly, at the age of 80, she transitioned into making installation art, and even presented a solo exhibition called “A Cinema Shack: The greenhouse of Happiness” at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris last year.
Throughout her lengthy career as a renowned filmmaker, she continued to make photography and art and presented works in institutional exhibitions including LACMA, the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and the Biennale de Lyon. Last year, her work was included in the Liverpool Biennial, themed “Beautiful world, where are you?”
The tireless artist was further thrust into the spotlight when she released Moments: Faces of a Journey in 2017, a documentary that she co-directed with JR during a road trip across rural France. It premiered to critical acclaim in Cannes that year and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2018. The pair, who were friends and often pictured together on JR’s Instagram, said they shared an interest in telling the stories of marginal and unknown people. Indeed, Varda’s films rarely focused on famous figures or characters in positions of power.
She is outlived by her two children Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy.
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