As Beautiful As Little Cats

As Beautiful As Little Cats

Leap Editor's Note: In 1957, the filmmaker Agnès Varda assumed the role of photographer during a two-month journey around both urban and rural China with a delegation of French dignitaries. In 2012, her photographs from that trip appeared in “The Beaches of Agnès Varda in China,” an exhibition at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Varda wrote this text, which accompanied the publication of her images in magazine’s , shortly before traveling to Beijing for the exhibit.

In 1957, the People’s Republic of China was not yet recognized by the United Nations, and was closed to most foreigners. I felt very honored to be part of the French group invited to bring their experiences from different backgrounds to the young People’s Republic. I was determined to do the best job possible as a photographer. There was so much to discover—everything.

* * *

A very politically oriented program was organized for the group. When asked what I most wanted to see, what my preferences were for my visit, I said I was the photographer of a theater in France, our Théâtre National Populaire, so I wanted to see and capture the many forms of popular public entertainment: the little street circus, stick puppets, marionettes/thread puppets, traditional opera, opera sung by men only or by women only (such as the all-female “theater of cats” in Shanghai).

I was impressed by everything: the collective behavior, everyone dressed in blue—both men and women—completely removed from any fashion dictate. There were millions of bikes and little children as beautiful as little cats.

We went from the North to the South and traveled by boat from Chongqing to Shanghai down the huge Yangtze River. And, since another member of the group—a journalist—wanted to report on minority peoples of China, we also went to Yunnan province.

There was a lot of activity, so much going on. I went from surprise to surprise. Not to mention the food—very varied from one place to another. In Sichuan province, for instance, I could not eat a thing, it was so spicy!

It was two months of discovery in the cities and in the countryside.

* * *

I didn’t think of making a film. I didn’t even bring a 16 mm camera with me. I brought a lot of photographic materials, a Rolleiflex, a Leica M3, lots of lenses, and many rolls of film. I had in mind to bring back a rich harvest of images.

Since video cameras appeared, I have been able to film my travels as well as to take photographs. Depending upon what I feel like doing, I choose to be either photographer, filmmaker, or visual artist. It is like wearing three caps, working with three sets of tools, or growing three gardens.

* * *

I have visited many countries, including Communist countries. Russia, China, and Cuba were full of surprises, and often difficult to comprehend. As I speak Spanish, I was able to get closer to people and things in Cuba.

* * *

My China photographs are not known in France. Two famous photographers—[Henri] Cartier-Bresson and [Marc] Riboud—were also in China at the same time as I was. They produced books and had photos on the covers of magazines. I was unknown at that time, so I did not.

I’m very excited to have the Chinese people discover in 2012 my images of China as it was in 1957.

* * *

I wanted to create a structure on which to show my photos to avoid simply having images lined up on the walls of the museum. I made the model for a portico using little pieces of wood that were part of a kit made for children and wooden clothes pins. I made it look Chinese and painted it red not only because I love the color red but also because Communist countries are related to red—we remember Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book—and I know that red has many other important meanings in Chinese culture.

This little “pagoda” model has been enlarged into a really big pavilion in the center of the huge entrance hall of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum.

Red is a joyful color, a welcoming treat, I hope.

* * *

I knew very little about China in the 1950s; I know more now but still very little. There are lots of articles in the press about the “new China,” television programs, commentaries, and for me especially, films of recent Chinese filmmakers. I look forward to meeting some of them during my visit.

Compared to the 1950s—and because this time I come as an artist with exhibitions and screenings—I will be able to have richer meetings and exchanges of ideas.

In our chaotic world full of disasters, hate and suffering, it helps me to believe that cultural exchange is good for everyone. Art is a wind we need to feel blow.

Agnès Varda is a filmmaker and photographer. She is a Professor of Film and Documentaries at the European Graduate School. She studied at the École du Louvre with a focus on art history and...
LEAP is the leading international art magazine of contemporary China. Published six times a year in Chinese and English, it presents a winning mix of contemporary art coverage and cultural commentary...





Zhang Yimou: ‘Even Though Our Market Is Growing Fast, We’re Still Not Satisfied’

Jonathan Landreth
Hollywood has Steven Spielberg and China has Zhang Yimou, the senior statesman of moviemaking in the People’s Republic. From Red Sorghum, his 1987 debut right out of the Beijing Film Academy, through Hero, which grossed more in America in 2002 than...



Xi Jinping on What’s Wrong with Contemporary Chinese Culture

from China Film Insider
At the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art last October, President Xi Jinping spoke to a high-level audience of arts professionals about the role of arts and culture in China. The event, along with excerpts of the October 15, 2014 speech, given in...



Jia Zhangke on Finding Freedom in China on Film

Jonathan Landreth
Jia Zhangke is among the most celebrated filmmakers China has ever produced—outside of China. His 2013 film, A Touch of Sin, a weaving-together of four tales of violence ripped from modern-day newspaper headlines, won the Best Screenplay award at...



In Zhang Yimou’s ‘Coming Home’ History is Muted But Not Silent

Eva Shan Chou
Coming Home, directed by the celebrated Zhang Yimou and released in the U.S. last week, begins as a man escapes a labor camp in China’s northwest and tries to return home. But he is captured when he and his wife attempt to meet, after their daughter...



French Director’s Chinese Movie Balances Freedom With Compromise

Jonathan Landreth
In 2012, French movie director Jean-Jacques Annaud got a warm welcome in China after more than a dozen years as persona non grata there for having offended official Chinese Communist Party history with his 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet—the story of...



The Met Goes to China

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
In July, while in New York, I toured The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s much buzzed about “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a visually stunning multimedia exhibit that showcases the varied ways that Western fashion designers have been inspired by...



Banned in China, Independent Chinese Films Come to New York

Jonathan Landreth
Three years ago this week I watched the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival crumble under the weight of official fear—fear that the gritty low-budget, experimental dramas and documentaries screening in a remote Beijing suburb reflected a touch...



Has Chinese Film Finally Produced a Real Hero?

Ying Zhu
“This Is an Era That Calls for Heroes”—the boldface Chinese characters scream from a publicity poster for the Chinese animation film, Monkey King: Hero is Back, which made headline news in July for breaking the animation box-office record in China...



Japan’s Soft Power Leader in China is a Fat Blue Cartoon Cat

David Volodzko
On July 28, costumed in vibrant colors, throngs of fans flocked toward the early morning light of Victoria Harbor, queueing outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for the last day of the 17th Ani-Com & Games Hong Kong. The...



Chinese Writers and Chinese Reality

Ouyang Bin
My first encounter with Liu Zhenyun was in 2003. At the time, cell phones had just become available in China and they were complicating people’s relationships. I witnessed a couple break up because of the secrets stored on a phone. I watched people...