Poems and Texts

“Postcards from the Cinema: Des Glaneuses” by Kate Zambreno

Postcards from the Cinema: Des Glaneuses

I’ve been meditating lately, in a rather wandering way, on the history of art as a continuous act of copying. When I had previously watched Agnès Varda’s own cinematic landscape I always moved quickly past her opening play with the original painting at Orsay of Millet’s Des glaneuses. I had only been marginally interested in Millet because of Van Gogh’s own yellow-hued copies of his work, these 21 canvases of homage painted while at the Saint-Paul asylum, he couldn’t work during intense periods of his illness and he had no models in the winter, so he painted after Millet, these studies of piety and light, and then the enclosed wheat fields outside of his window. Varda focuses on the painting for the first minute or so of her film, her narration at the opening, the cat stares at the camera and nuzzles a French dictionary, open to the letter G, illustrated by a black and white copy of the Millet painting, the reproduced, miniature image the filmmaker grew up seeing. A gleaner is one who gleans, she tells us. That in the past it was only women who gleaned, Millet’s women in the dictionary, des glaneuses. Although the contemporary gleaners and collectors she focuses on in this film–this meditation on collecting and filmmaking and also rural and urban poverty–are both men and women, les glaneurs. Pausing the Varda film streaming on my computer I watch a cheesy online video of the painting, its gold frame, with the closed-captioning on. Piano muzak. Two subdued radio voices. Millet’s painting was a scandal during the post-revolution 1857 Salon, Parisians were fearful of the poverty of the countryside, of the peasants being radicalized. Man: It’s an oddly soft painting. Woman: The colors are muted. Man: And the brush is not tight, right? There are no hard lines. Woman: That’s true. I never would have looked at this painting more if Varda hadn’t made me see it. Varda’s shot in the Musee D’Orsay. A man’s head in front of the painting, its gilded frame. The camera is still, time elapses, showing the tedium and labor of filmmaking, people are looking, pausing, a crowd then only an individual, some take pictures in front with cameras (not yet iPhones) quickly snapping away, yet refusing to look, the scene ends with a man photographing the painting. Thinking of Walter Benjamin: how all the reproductions crowd out the original. We go from a close-up of the painting of the three woman, to the present-day French countryside, a woman in an apron in a harvested field being interviewed by Varda, she mimes how her and her family used to glean ears of corn, gathering them up in her apron, before the efficiency of harvesting machines. Varda notes that the reality of the solitude of gleaners is in contrast to the collectivity often depicted in paintings. She finds one, Breton’s Woman Gleaning, a woman posing with wheat, the filmmaker poses with her own wheat, which she playfully then drops and picks up her handheld camera. The metaphor of the title. Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. “There’s another woman gleaning in this film, c’est moi.”

From the forthcoming issue of Fireflies dedicated to the work of Agnès Varda

Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author of a few books, most recently Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents). She is at work on a series about time, memory, and the persistence of art, including Drifts, forthcoming from Harper Perennial, and To Write As If Already Dead, a book on Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life for the ReReadings series for Columbia University Press. She teaches at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.

Related Events