Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Films and Their Sites
MIGUEL ABREU GALLERY | April 24 – June 19, 2016
After presentations in Europe (at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts du Mans (1999) in Locarno, and at the Villa Arson de Nice (2004)), the present iteration of this exhibition, organized by Jean Louis-Raymond, coincides with the first U.S. complete retrospective of Straub and Huillet’s filmmaking, at MoMA. Comprising an original film poster, mounted photographs, writings, and video, the exhibition raises an interesting question: Does this amount to documentation? Or do the works, particularly the many sequences of photographs, essentially stills selected from the films, do more than this?
Throughout the show, the particularity of the arrangements suggests independent works rather than simple documentation. A highly important concern for the filmmakers has been the phenomenon of framing. This not only situates the work in relation to painting and its extensive history, but also underlines its crucial role as a formal device in defining what we see and in what context. This is further emphasized when seen as a series of images plucked out of what would have been a more or less fluid narration of events. When we consider the works as independent yet related images, we are aware and can contemplate the significance of the frame apart from the flow of cinematic time—controlled as it is by the forward flow of real-world time.
Take for example, The Death of Empedocles (1987). Six silver-halide color prints mounted on aluminum represent just a quarter-second of cinema. Impossible to appreciate as a separate event in the durational experience of the film, this instant, isolated and extended, exposes a visual apparition as both movement and stasis. The appearance of a figure in a landscape at the extreme right—after five empty landscape frames—is sudden, but her appearance, in contrast to the absence of the preceding frames, has the affect of an arrival. Unlike in film, it is also possible to read the photographs the other way around. The visual impact and consequent thoughtfulness thus provoked amount to much more than a document of the film from which they are sampled.
Quite different to this piece is Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968). Again silver-halide prints, mounted on aluminum at the same size (sixty by eighty cm), are presented horizontally; here, however, the shots are in black and white and taken from five very different scenes, rather than from a tight fragment of the film. Each is compositionally exquisite. The film itself is based on the recollections of J.S. Bach’s second wife, who bore him thirteen children and died ten years after his death in abject poverty. The scenes are set to Bach’s music, and the locations are from their shared life. The five stills evince the strains of a disciplined—but far from secure—life, and feature a harpsichord that silently evokes or stands in for the music in the film. It is typical of the filmmakers’ oeuvre in that they never seek to dramatize; instead, this intense content is presented in a documentarian mode.
The work is an engagement with and a meditation on cinema and painting—and also literature, music, philosophy, and theater. Texts used as a basis for film include those from Sophocles, Cornielle, Bach, Hölderlin, Cézanne, Brecht, Schönberg, Kafka, Pavese, among others. Though only two moving-image pieces are here, the annotated scripts and still images offer insight into working methods and process together with singularly stand-alone photographic pieces. Straub’s and Huillet’s extraordinary work was long overdue for a New York presentation: this wonderful exhibition, now that it has finally arrived, is not a disappointment.